You’re probably aware that the Asian American and Pacific Islander community has been experiencing a surge in horrific hate crimes. In this environment, a lot of well-meaning white folks are thinking about what they can do to help. As a result, many are taking to their phones and “checking in” on their AAPI “friends.”
The week of the shootings in Atlanta, my phone lit up with a Facebook messenger notification. I opened the app, which was probably last updated in 2016, and saw a name I didn’t recognize. There wasn’t a profile picture either. “Definitely a bot,” I thought. I was about to swipe the message into the trash can when I stopped. With a furrowed brow, I read:
“Hey, just wanted to let you know I’m holding space for you. Sorry the world is garbage. Let me know if you want to talk.”
I had no idea who this was for 20 minutes. Eventually it dawned on me that it was somebody I went to college with many moons ago. We had only one class together, yet she thought that meant she was close enough to me to call me “Ling Ling,” a stereotypical Asian name she selected randomly.
She was also insufferable whenever I happened to sit by a specific guy in our class, making jokes suggesting that I was in love with him (because he also happened to be Asian). She never seemed to say anything when I sat by one of the other 50 students in our lecture hall though.
Yes, people are terrible in college and they’re capable of change, but I think she needed to acknowledge her treatment toward me before offering to “hold space” for me. And even then, that would have been putting the cart before the horse. I would have preferred that she led with, “I don’t know if you remember me, but we went to school together.”
It was jarring that she messaged me out of the blue, but acted like we were buddies, or that I would instantly know who she was ― sans profile picture and all. It felt like the same entitled attitude with which she used to call me “Ling Ling.” I decided I didn’t want to give her my time in the year 2021, so I put my phone away.
Later, it lit up with another notification. This time from Instagram. Without opening it, I saw a little preview of a direct message.
“I want to apologize for playing ‘Asian or Old Person’ in the car all those times. I know it made you uncomfortable, but that was never my intention. I’d love to know how you’re doing in all this.”
Just in case you didn’t know, “Asian or Old Person” is a game that awful white people play in the car. When they see a bad driver, they try to guess if it’s an Asian person or an old person. Double points if it’s both. So that was a former roommate of mine.
She never seemed to ask herself, “Hmm, should I be playing ‘Asian or Old Person’ in the car with my Asian roommate who has told me to stop playing that before?” I didn’t bother opening her DM. I thought it could wait.
I did screenshot the notification (because it was truly an insane opening line) and send it to my cousin. She called me immediately and we discussed the sudden flurry of “check-ins” and “apologies” we’d been getting.
She described how her company had sent out one of those “We stand in solidarity with the AAPI community” emails, but otherwise just went about its business as usual, interrupting all the women of color in meetings.
Some of her white colleagues did reach out and say that if she needed anything, to let them know. “What, like give me a ride to the airport?! I don’t get it!” she told me in disbelief. “What I need from them is to stop dismissing me like I’m new and don’t know what I’m doing. If that’s too much to ask for, maybe they could just learn to spell my last name correctly.”
After much needed catharsis, I hung up my phone and looked down at the screen. There was an Instagram notification from an hour ago.
“This message is no longer available because it was unsent by the sender.”
My brows furrowed so hard I got a migraine. “She did WHAT?!” I shouted. My former roommate quite literally took back her apology. She must have thought I hadn’t seen it. But I had the receipts! “Do I really wanna go there?” I asked myself.
I sent them to her and asked if she wanted to clarify why she unsent it.
Maybe she changed her mind and thought it was better not to open old wounds. Maybe she took it back because I didn’t respond right away and she decided she had nothing to apologize for anymore. Maybe she was embarrassed. I’ll never understand! Or maybe this backpedaling and silence kind of already tells me everything I need to know.
One thing I know for sure is that being checked in on or apologized to is new for me. I am much more used to being ignored and dismissed, but now suddenly I feel responsible for telling white people, “Don’t worry, I know you’re not one of those white people.” I don’t know how I am supposed to respond honestly to all of this without sounding rude (I, too, wish not to upset people) and it is exhausting.
It’s not enough to just say you’re an ally. Your actions have to match your words too. If someone says “I’m here for you” after the same meeting where they didn’t value our input, we’re going to be very confused and suspicious. If someone acknowledges that their racist games made us uncomfortable, wants to apologize for it, but then takes back the apology ... of course we will think they are that white person!
White people must examine their apologies. They need to ask themselves if they’re really sorry and want to do better, or if they just need a person of color to exonerate them for their racism so that they can go about their day guilt-free again. If it’s the latter, sorry but you don’t need to further damage the AAPI community by “checking in” on your Asian “friends.”
If they’re the former, and they really believe their apology is genuine and sincere, the hard part will be for them to understand that they are still not entitled to forgiveness.
Despite that, they must continue to use their privilege to hold their white friends accountable. If white people really want to help, they’ve got to do that on their own. Marginalized people are not here to take on the burden of getting white people up to speed, nor are they responsible for holding their hands and patting them on the back.
These check-ins and apologies are just another way for white people to center themselves in the conversation and make it about their own emotions. Ultimately, they need to take up less space, because this isn’t about them.