I’m in a weird, shitty fight with a friend. We’re both East Asian, and a couple of years ago, we founded a collective to support and promote queer Asians in the arts. However, I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the way my friend centres herself in our work. She’s mixed race with one white parent, and honestly, she is very white passing and was raised completely in North America in a mostly white environment. Most people wouldn’t know she was Asian if she didn’t tell them. However, she takes up a lot of space and does a lot of speaking “for” the Asian community (which, of course, isn’t even close to a monolith). She also will often interrupt me and other members of the collective to say that we aren’t being considerate of her mixed-race status and to talk about how much mixed-race people are invisibilized.
I’m starting to find it really triggering and upsetting. I think that white-passing folks of colour need to step up and step back when it comes to anti-racism. I told her this and she said I was being laterally violent, now we’re not talking to each other (but we are talking to our other friends about it, so they’re starting to pick sides). To be frank, I’m just tired (lol). My question is: how much space are white-passing folks entitled to in the antiracist movement? Thanks.
Angry Asian Activist
Friendship fights are the worst! This goes double for fights with friends over identity politics. What I’m getting is that you’re feeling angry and disappointed because of the way your friend is not able to clearly reflect on her social position, her actions or their impact on you. I’m also imagining that this is probably also the way your friend feels about you: unseen, misunderstood and attacked for taking a position.
This is the kind of soul-draining conflict that can tear friendships and organizations apart, and so I invite you to take a moment to offer yourself some deep and generous compassion: it’s okay to feel the way you feel—to be irritated, frustrated, even angry. It’s also okay to feel hurt and sad and anxious, which are usually the emotions hiding underneath angry feelings in a fight with someone we usually like or love. Take a moment to take inventory of your emotions: What are all of the things that you are feeling? What is it that you want your friend to hear and understand, coming from you? What can you offer yourself to help make yourself feel better?
The most direct question you asked is a political and theoretical one, AAA, and so I’m going to start by answering that one. However, I understand that there are a lot of emotional undercurrents flowing through the conflict, and so I will also return to those shortly. I’ve found that conflicts about identity are usually often heavily influenced by emotional and relationship dynamics that are just as (if not more) important than the political concepts at play.
So let’s begin with your question: How much space are white-passing folks entitled to in the antiracist movement? Essentially, I think this means, to what extent should white-passing people of colour take on positions of leadership and centre their own needs in antiracist activism? How much should such people speak up and devote time to their perspectives in the antiracist conversation?
As far as I know, there are two basic positions that people take on this issue. The first is that white-passing individuals, who by definition are able to move through white-dominant society without being marked as racialized, benefit from a certain amount of white privilege and therefore are not as oppressed as non-passing people of colour. From this perspective, it can be offensive and even damaging to the movement for white-passing people to “take up” space, both because they are not the most vulnerable people in their communities, and because doing so can replicate racial power dynamics. This is perhaps what you are reacting to, AAA—when your friend behaves in the way you’ve described, it triggers uncomfortable feelings about whether she is using white-passing privilege in hurtful or dominating ways.
The other position that I’ve heard is that white-passing mixed-race folks often feel erased within both the dominant culture and within their racialized communities. Mixed-race people (whether or not they are partly white or white-passing) are often treated as though they are “not enough” to belong to either side of their heritage, and their experiences of racism and systemic violence may not be taken seriously and may even mocked by the very social movements that are supposed to help them. Furthermore, the apparent privilege of “passing” as white can be highly contextual; an individual may be treated as white only in certain situations, while not in others. As a result, white-passing mixed race folks often experience a certain kind of erasure and rejection that is unique.
As a person of colour myself who is not mixed race, my own “take” is a blend of the two perspectives described above. I believe that white-passing folks of colour do experience both racism and some aspects of white privilege. As a result, I believe that white-passing people of colour can and do belong in the antiracist movement. However, I also believe that the people centred in antiracist activism should be those most likely to experience severe racist harm and violence: folks who are likely to be stopped and profiled on the street, imprisoned or killed by the state or denied access to essential resources for life—most often people who are visibly racialized, particularly Black and Indigenous folks.
So where does that leave your friend, AAA? I believe that it’s important for white-passing folks to be able to receive feedback about whether they are centring themselves too much in antiracist organizing. However, I also believe that it’s important that this feedback be offered with sensitivity and kindness, because it is often deeply triggering and can touch upon long-standing emotional wounds.
This brings me to the emotional dynamics in the situation: at the end of the day, most of us involved in community organizing and racial justice activism are trying to get our needs met, even as we work toward a greater cause. This is a natural and normal part of activism: people who get involved are often trying to heal old wounds and find a community, something bigger to become a part of that can protect and support them against future wounds. When our emotional needs for belonging, ego fulfillment, feeling powerful and so on, are thwarted, we tend to lash out, thus driving a conflict into being.
Conflict around belonging can be hugely anxiety-provoking, and in our anxiety, the most natural step is to escalate and try and shift all the blame on to the other person while also seeking out the support of friends. Unfortunately, while this technique might be temporarily comforting, it tends to exacerbate conflict and make it worse in the long run. I would suggest trying to limit the “taking sides” dynamic that you’re noticing among your mutual friends. Instead, you might ask your friends to help de-escalate the conflict by respecting both of your boundaries, not passing on potentially hurtful messages and staying friends with both of you. With a supportive network in place, you and your friend will be better set up to work this conflict out.
Remember that you and your friend don’t necessarily need to agree on everything. You just need to agree on how you want to treat each other and work together. I invite you to stay firm in your integrity, AAA, when it comes to what you believe in. However, I also invite you to get curious. What needs of your own are you trying to fulfil through working with this collective, and what needs might your friend be trying to fulfil? How can you honour what’s important to her while also honouring what’s important to you? I encourage you to consider acting from a place of compassion and generosity, both because this is more likely to inspire self-reflection and vulnerability in your friend, and because I imagine that compassion and generosity are a part of the world you want to create.
Yes, AAA, your friend might need to step up and step back. But what will she stand on as she is trying to do so? Conflict is an invitation to transform—not just for the people we think are wrong, but for ourselves. How can you help your friend to embrace her potential for resilience, self-reflection and change? By embracing your own, AAA. Lead with kindness and compassion for your friend and for yourself. They will show you the way.
Kai Cheng Thom is no longer a registered or practicing mental health professional. The opinions expressed in this column are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content in this column, including, but not limited to, all text, graphics, videos and images, is for general information purposes only. This column, its author, Xtra (including its parent and affiliated companies, as well as their directors, officers, employees, successors and assigns) and any guest authors are not responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in this column or the outcome of following any information provided directly or indirectly from it.