The Box to Check
1. 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. Their thoughts 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. The school board must be contacted by our parents to request basic items such as AC and heat for the classrooms or to prevent slime from oozing onto the walls. Fundraising is required to purchase supplies for teachers and musical instruments as well as new uniforms.
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!”
Already at six years of age, I know exactly what my parents expect from me. Their future is written in my mind. I see how the world thinks of us, how they treat us—what they give us versus what they give them. They choose who to prioritize and forget. It is the lines I see around me, through my town, and back over centuries, that make my world. They tell me that I am not worth it, that I don’t matter, that I am not smart.
However, these are lines I recognize as not my own and were never mine. At 6 years of age, I have learned that, despite all the negative things I hear about myself, I am intelligent.
Then I take out my No. 2 pencil, and I check “Black.” To prove them wrong.
2nd grade. Seven years old. My mother comes to my class and tells us about her Japanese heritage. Her mom makes butter mochi and teaches origami to us. Rafu Shumpo. A photo caught my eye as I flip through the paper with my friends. What are my classmates pointing to? Caricatured Asian face, slanted eye, and words written in fake Asian font. Wong Brothers Laundry—Two Wongs You can turn it white emblazoned on Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts.
My mom said to us that Asian people are subject to racism just as Blacks. She points out the images and then asks, Do you think that looks like me? It doesn’t.“Yes,” my classmates say, shaking their heads.
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The Asian faces on these shirts make me squint. My mom looks nothing like them; I don’t look like them. 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. It makes me feel like I am missing something, or that my mom is not doing the right thing. Lonely, lonely, and lonely. I feel like I need to hide.
My mom finishes and asks us if we have questions.
Stephen, my classmate raises his arm. Ms. Matsuda – Why do we hate white people so much, Ms. Matsuda?
My mom is searching for the right words, while a class full of second-graders from Black schools stares at me.
While we may still be young, many things are already known.
It’s the First Time
Seventh grade. I’m 13 years old. I rode the charterered bus, which carried us Black children across the park to the middle school located on the white side. A drunken white man, who is angry and belligerent on his way to school, gets on board the bus. He calls us all the N-word, tells us we’re all going to hell. The back boys stand tall, ready and willing to fight. It’s hot. My heart is racing. I see the hate in his eyes, the way he looks at us, like we’re animals.
He is kicked off by the bus driver and then we travel silently to school. We go through metal detectors and cops as we enter the school. In the cafeteria we eat lunch. We sit in the middle of two pillars. 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.
Later that day, I went home to inform my mom of the incident with the white bus conductor. As she reports the incident to the bus company, I am sitting in the kitchen. I turn to my mother. She’s angry. She’s hurt. The man in the bus was still talking to her. He called. Please send me that. It’s not her. While she’s hurt, I don’t feel the pain. As I sit in the kitchen, the distance between us suddenly becomes apparent. How she’s safe, and how I’m not. She cannot protect me, I know. The weight of this all makes me sit in the kitchen. Still shaking.
Year one of high school. I’m 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 friends are divided into cliques: Filipinos, Polynesians, and the Japanese. I don’t know where I fit in. One of the girls from my class comments on my stomach and says that I remind them of Nicki Minaj. I know it’s a compliment, but it feels weird. Black people are my favorite.
My Asian classmate is one day surprised to see a young Asian student in our school arrive at school with a T-shirt that was covered in cartoon characters. The child rides in a lowrider and eats fried chicken. My stomach sinks when I first see the shirt-wearing boy at school. The twisted reflection in my eyes, as I gaze at the T-shirt, makes me feel sick. . . And I’m sure that the shirt is talking to me. All about us. These are their thoughts about us. They see us this way. Just like the white man in front of me. Like we’re animals.
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It’s my wish to rip that shirt off of him. I want to shout. But I don’t say anything. I walk by him, don’t glance at him when he is in class and avert my gaze when he passes me in the corridor.
The other half-Black child in my class is always looking at me. It makes me wonder if the shirt hurts him as much as it does to me. I want to ask him, I want to reach out, but I can’t find the words. In the small world that is our school, we walk silently together. An invisible line connects us, holding each other’s weight. We never discuss the shirt or how lonely we feel. We need one another so much.
Every child in my class is wearing the shirt again to school. It happens again. Then 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. I have almost said something a couple of times. 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. Each time I feel guilty for saying nothing. My silence feels like permission. It’s like he can wear this shirt because I don’t say anything. This is all my fault.
The shirt is still on his body. He doesn’t say anything.
Year of the Senior. I am now 18 years of age. 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 share the story of this word with him, and tell him how hurt it makes me feel.
You can’t say that,You are right.
It’s just a word,He continues to say it.
It’s just a word.
It’s just a word.
He never apologizes.
We do the senior class lock in at Waikiki hotel on graduation night. 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, my dreams still come true, and I still get shaken every day.
You are most welcome
In my first week at Harvard the Asian American Association appears in my dorm. Their list is reflected in their eyes, and then they glance at me, puzzled.
Is your roommate home?They say this while scanning the area behind me.
We’re looking for Kimiko.
I am Kimiko,You are right.
Oh,They say. I stare at them. They stare at my brown eyes and my curly hair.
They accept my invitation and I shut the door. I don’t show up for a meeting.
One month later, an anti–affirmative action op-ed published in the Harvard CrimsonCampus explodes. 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.
My dorm room is the only place I live in. 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. This is where I feel most secure. We are being attacked. 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. Everybody on campus has different opinions. They You are worthy to be here. TheyMerit was the only way to get in. 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. At the 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. I am sat next to my white boss. She casually mentions the N word. My other boss, a half-Asian, half-white woman, doesn’t say anything. Conversations continue without stopping, as no one said anything. I stand there shaking but nobody sees. My voice has gone, and I feel like I should say something. The next truck stops, and I am forced to lock myself up in the bathroom. 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. I hear a joke and it hits me. Jap.When they were putting my grandfather’s family behind barbed wire at Heart Mountain, during World War II, they called him that. My cousin’s high school baseball coach called him that a few years ago, and he quit baseball.
Everyone says nothing, so the conversation goes on. I sit here shaking and no one notices. My voice has gone, and I feel like I should say something.
Your body would love to be able to fit into the space that is nonnegotiable
This is what the body says NO
I won’t move
I won’t bend to my rules
This will never happen to me
However, you’re still swallowing your screams again
You suddenly become the one!
This is what it’s okay to say.
This is an acceptable thing to say, who has?
However, it’s not okay
This is what your body already knows
However, it’s too busy to manage its presence
To ensure that you are always here
My age is 27. I’m sitting in the living room, surrounded by Black people. It’s the news. In front of smiling Asians, President Joe Biden signs a bill. But the people in this living room aren’t smiling. They’re saying, It was so easy for them. They’re saying, We can’t even get an anti-lynching bill.
It is the undercurrent sentiment they’ll never do that for us.
It’s amazing how much I can feel at the same time. Vincent Chin is a subject I’m familiar with. I am familiar with the Chinese massacres of the 1800s. My cousin was victim to an attack on New York streets last year by anti-Asian hate crime victims during the pandemic.
I know all this and yet—
It was so easy for them.
Also, I understand that fast is not always relative. We are all slow. Because it’s been 400 years, and we are still waiting, always waiting—for a country that will never protect us.
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As I watch the Asians on TV cheering and smiling, I smile at them. 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. It’s the pain of being forgotten and the feeling of betraying oneself. The knowledge that America won’t pass hate crime laws for us. America, the perpetrator of hate crimes against us is itself killing us.
They then play footage that has been leaked of police beating a Black man in Louisiana to death.
I gaze down at my feet. I can’t watch.
I don’t feel like celebrating.
Which 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 noWhen I need to say Yes“I say,”YesWhen I ought to probably say “no”
Ich muß walk in a store
I am not greeted by anyone
When I enter a restaurant, it is empty.
I am the only one who serves me
When I go into a neighbourhood, it is my first time there.
There’s a line. I know on which side I am.
It’s never straight down the middle
I’m never JustAsian girls
Although I’m Asian, my identity will remain 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. This print was made with permission.
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