A photographer recounts racist statements about her Asian heritage – The Washington Post

Whoever came up with the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is either a flat-out liar or someone who has never been tormented by unkind words. Words hurt. They do real damage. It happens every day, and to far too many people.
It happened to photographer Margaret Albaugh. But instead of staying quiet, she was courageous enough to try to make sense of it by sharing her story with the world in a recent photo project.
Albaugh’s project, “The Most Asian Part of Me,” is a searing self-reflection on how the heinousness of racism seeps deeply into a life and molds and shapes it in harmful ways. Slinging epithets at a person because of where they come from, how they look, what their sexual orientation is or how old they are isn’t a game — although it sure seems to bring pleasure to some people.
It’s vital to bring these experiences to light and uncover the very real damage caused by racism and othering. It takes a vast amount of courage to be open and raw about it, to rip that pain open for everyone to see. But we will never have the opportunity to learn how to be better if we don’t acknowledge how hurtful this is.
With that in mind, here’s Margaret in her own words:
“I avoided being Chinese my whole life.
When I was a kid, I stopped speaking Chinese and only spoke English once I became fluent. I spent summer afternoons pinching my nose into a point. I avoided inviting friends to my house because I did not want them to see the Chinese calligraphy scrolls on the wall. I avoided a friendship with Robin, the Japanese student in my second-grade class, so we didn’t get ‘othered’ together. I dated White boys instead of Asian boys, believing in the power of one group and the prejudices of another. I was many things in life — jogger, baker, student, artist — but I avoided the label of Asian. For most of my life, being Asian didn’t identify me; it separated me.
My family moved to Walnut Creek just after kindergarten. In that mostly White, affluent suburb of San Francisco I experienced racism for the first time: a young boy slanted his eyes at me. I stayed quiet then and I have stayed quiet in the decades after that. As I got older the racist words became directed to my sex and I internalized that trauma.
‘The Most Asian Part of Me’ is to help me confront these words. And these people, from my past. This is also a way to confront my own white supremacy — the ways I have upheld white narrative by being silent during these moments, by accepting their narrative as an acceptable narrative, I was upholding white supremacy. This project allowed me to process the default narrative, reject it, and reclaim my own identity.
It was important to include aspects of the person’s identity to see these words are said not from nebulous strangers but also from people within my close circles. These photos are Polaroids, and the physicality of a printed object makes me confront the words, and these people, from my past in a tactile way that digital photos don’t allow. I lifted the emulsion from the Polaroids and dried them on watercolor paper, where I could force myself and the viewer to consider those painful moments with a picture that reflects who I was at the time. The torn images reflect the ways racism affects us — it rips at us bit by bit. The emulsions feel like skin between my fingers, delicate and vulnerable. We are somewhat recognizable of the original self after these moments but never the same. I signed each piece in red with my Chinese name stamp, a traditional way for Chinese artists to sign their work.
I hope to foster connection and a sense of humanity with these images. As my kids grow, they will undoubtedly face words like these. My hope is to give them something I did not have — an understanding of how to dismantle these words combined with the armor of a strong sense of identity, both things that escape many minorities. In the end, I hope they never have to question who they are for the sake of belonging.”
Albaugh’s project struck a nerve in me that has been frayed my entire life.
Because my parents were missionaries, I grew up in Southeast Asia. While growing up as an expatriate afforded me all kinds of privileges, it also introduced me to how cruel people can be.
I remember the first time I became aware that I was “different,” and how that was cause for some people to bully and make fun of me. It happened on the playground of the elementary school I ended up going to while my family was on furlough during my fourth-grade year.
It was here that I learned that I wore the wrong kinds of clothes and didn’t know any of the right TV shows and that I talked funny. When I tried to tell people that I lived in Macao, a place near Hong Kong, I remember them retorting, “You live in Donkey Kong?” Or this nugget: “Where’s Macao?,” “Macao’s in my field!”
I cannot even begin to imagine how the poison of racism can suffocate a person’s life, not even for a moment. But I do know that words hurt. They cause indelible damage. They may not cause visible cuts or bruises, but they can destroy a person’s sense of belonging and self-worth.
Albaugh’s project is a vivid testament to this. It’s something we should keep in mind as we interact with each other in our day-to-day lives, from working or being neighbors to creating policies that drive the engine of the world we all live in together.
You can see more of Albaugh’s work on her website, here.
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