Am I a person of color? Only because you want to define me

Amy Chiou
Amy Chiou

“Do you consider yourself a person of color?”

The question catches me off-guard, and I hesitate, searching their face for a clue. What is the source of their confusion? What are they really asking me?

Person of color. Minority. These are all terms bounded and burdened by history and geography. When I moved to Charlotte in 2008, one of my earliest observations was that Charlotte was alarmingly, comfortably segregated into black and white communities. This isn’t exclusive to Charlotte, but it was my first experience living in a place where people lack the words to talk about people who look like me because I am neither black nor white. Here, even if we don’t want to admit it, there are black and white professional associations, philanthropy, churches, social groups, restaurants and clubs. As I navigated the city, I learned a history that wasn’t mine but would become mine over time. I learned about redlining, busing and neighborhood schools, gerrymandering and a less-than-just administration of justice.

In this black and white city, I first experienced being grouped as “Asian” and was asked to explain to the rest of my Leaders Under 40 class what I had in common with a Pakistani immigrant. It’s in Charlotte where a stranger asked if they could touch my hair.

In light of Charlotte’s history and our recent community conversations about systemic racism, I understand the question, posed with its presumption of disadvantage and systemic oppression. “Am I a person of color?” I grew up in a middle-class suburb of Dallas, Texas. I went to high-performing public schools that prepared me for college and law school. My parents are immigrants, but they came to the United States for graduate school and stayed for jobs in telecommunications as engineers. I have the luxury of believing that the system will treat me fairly and protect me.

Nevertheless, yes, I am a person of color. I am treated differently. I have learned to operate within a system that wasn’t designed to maximize my individual success. I learned someone else’s version of history in public school. My cultural traditions are often glossed over or grouped together with other ones to save time. I am invited to participate because “I would add so much” or “we don’t have anyone like you.” People make assumptions about my life experiences and language skills without asking. More than anything, I am a person of color because other people feel the right to define me.

Charlotte’s leadership is working hard at breaking away from the unhealthy and unsustainable status quo of quietly and comfortably segregated. However, if we are to succeed (and it’s not guaranteed that we will), how we approach and discuss identity and race is just as important as the interventions we choose to disrupt what has been. It needs to be more expansive and more inclusive than black and white. We need to move past diversity in appearance to diversity in perspective, experience and thought. At the individual level, we all need to resist assumptions and pre-conceived notions, approach each other with curiosity and compassion, and vigilantly doubt the system, not the person. Re-read the first line of this column and consider the race and gender you assigned to the speaker. I’ve had this conversation with more than one person, so you are likely correct, but not completely.

Chiou is the executive director of Queen City Forward. Email: amy.observer@gmail.com.