My second year of teaching fresh out of graduate school, I took on the Advanced Placement English Literature course at a semi-urban high school just outside of Boston. This was a racially diverse school in a town where a large number of the middle class parents sent their kids to private school. In my two sections of AP English Lit, I probably had a total of a half dozen kids of color, and of those the majority of them were Asian and the remaining either African American or bi-racial. My classes ended up being the white children of the middle class families in town; very seldom did the kids who live in the projects end up in my senior AP English class, and our classroom certainly did not reflect the actual racial diversity of the school as a whole.
I became a very good English teacher, but I wasn’t ready that first year of AP. I made certain mistakes, and while I was fine admitting those mistakes to my students, most of my students were unwilling to forgive and forget. Principal among them was a horrible young wench with a gift for writing I’ll call Anne. Anne was a brilliant student in English; she could read weighty works of literature quickly and immediately whip up a pithy and convincing analytical essay exploring their major thematic elements. This of course inflated her ego in my class and caused her to be an absolutely awful person for the fifty minutes she spent with me each day. When I mispronounced a word during a discussion for example, I would realize my mistake and correct myself; she would then interject, “Um…don’t you have a master’s degree?” in the biz-natchiest tone anyone could muster.
Being a young teacher, I let my students sit where they liked, and Anne was always flanked by two boys who I was positive were gay. One of them had actually tried to Instant Message me the summer before (remember AOL anyone?) to talk about me being gay. Not knowing who was on the other end of the computer line, I suggested we meet up with a guidance counselor once school started, and I think this pissed him off enough to where I could do no right, and Anne and the other boy quickly followed suit. I didn’t know enough at the time to demand respect from these putzes, and when I finally put my foot down late in the year and separated the three of them in class, Anne was beside herself. She ran to the principal to complain about how I humiliated her by making her sit in the corner OF THE CIRCLE, amongst other lies. After an especially awful parent meeting, Anne was removed from my class for the last two weeks of the school year.
In Anne’s homeroom the day after her fate was handed down by the Direction of English, other students were grilling her about what happened. Wise enough to know how to play to an eager audience, Anne proclaimed, “I’m finally free of that greasy pseudo-Asian homosexual!” Unfortunately for her, her homeroom teacher was my friend and one of the few adults in this school who would actually take offense at her comments. She reported her, the school racial sensitivity expert was called in, Anne wrote a pathetic apology to me on lined binder paper, and now that she’s ten years out of high school she’s probably
living the obnoxious life of drunken Thursday nights and Friday morning walks of shame she was meant to live very happy.
To make a long story even longer, Anne got her affectionate pseudonym for me from various stories I told the class. In the midst of some class discussion of the literature, I brought up the story of my college roommate who was excited I was Asian. I often tell this story for comedic effect, and the punchline used to be that this guy thought I was Asian in the first place! I mean, come on! Me, Asian? Ha! As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t grow up identifying as Asian, and it wasn’t until I moved to the East Coast that people started really questioning my ethnic roots. When I started teaching, I still thought it was hilarious that people that that I was Asian. This is where Anne came up with her terminology–she added the “pseudo” herself (did I mention she was a gifted writer?), but I’m not quite sure where she got the “greasy.” That’s probably just because she was a witch with a capital B.
Several years later, I started to come to terms with my own racial identity. I’d been called a “gook” by students, asked incessantly by young kids if I knew judo or karate, and I had one embarrassing incident in my first year at that semi-urban high school where an older white guidance counselor ran down an empty hallway indignantly screaming, “Mr. Lee! Mr. Lee, turn around! I’m talking to you!” This was embarrassing mostly for her who didn’t realize that I wasn’t the administrator named Mr. Lee who had worked at the school for several years and looked nothing like me. I started to think perhaps the problem wasn’t all them…perhaps I did look different.
When my daughter was a toddler, I enrolled in an anti-racist teaching class devoted to studying issues of racial identity development. We looked at several models, and I found myself more closely to the identity development of a person of color than of a white person. I was one of only two nonwhite students in the class; the other was a African American woman of black and Asian descent. As I started awakening to my own identity, I found myself in a precarious situation in the class. Could I possibly claim I was a person of color when there was a real person of color in the room? At that point in my development, the answer was definitively no. I mean, I had a black daughter and these issues felt very personal because of that, but I wasn’t subject to the same types of racism and prejudice that I was studying in the course, right?
At one point in the class, we had to walk across the room when the facilitators called out types of identities. When they called out homosexual or gay, I proudly walked across the room, as I did when they asked for people who are adopted or have adopted children. When they called for people of color however, I stayed put. I let that one black woman walk across the room alone. Later, when I spoke with my nonwhite counterpart from class, she laughed at me: “I was thinking, what is his problem? Why isn’t he walking across this room?” We laughed together, and I explained my position. I think I needed to have that permission from a person that I had grown up as viewing a real person of color in order to be included in that identity group. I can pinpoint that conversation as the moment when I decided to start living openly as a man of color.
Given all that emotional baggage and personal history, I still cling nostalgically to the “pseudo” epithet, but I’m okay dropping the “greasy.”