I’ve been called “pretty white” a few times in my life. Now, if you look at my headshot, I think it becomes clear that I’m Asian, and if you look at my last name, it becomes even clearer that I’m Korean. So, calling me “pretty white” means nothing from a physical standpoint. It’s a measure of how someone acts, not how someone looks.
So what makes me “pretty white?” Am I “pretty white” because my Korean is mediocre, I don’t really listen to K-pop and I’m not really part of the Korean community at Penn? Am I “pretty white” despite the fact that my parents are first-generation immigrants and I spent 10 years in Korea and went to elementary school there? Does my cultural absorption into the mainstream Americana negate my experiences?
When you pick apart the assumptions wrapped around the statement “you’re pretty white,” it becomes clear that it’s only a way of saying that “You’re culturally removed from your ethnicity and have been absorbed as part of mainstream American culture, and you don’t really care about the pop culture that is stereotypically associated with your ethnic group.”
Now here’s the interesting bit: I’ve heard “you’re pretty white” from both white people and people of color — in my case, specifically Asians.
When white people say “you’re pretty white,” it’s a racist statement prettily wrapped in a compliment. Is it derogatory to you in particular? No. Does it somewhat imply that being white is superior to being of color? Yes. But that’s an entirely different column and one that has been written before.
When Asians say “you’re pretty white,” it’s much stranger conceptually. It’s a judgment of where you fall in the assimilation spectrum, and often vaguely negative, coming coupled with the implication that you are selling out on your culture. Calling someone “pretty white” isn’t a measure of race, but of how much of your ethnic culture and pop culture you do not identify with, and it’s a ridiculous conflation.
My point is this: “White” should not be considered “average,” and a person of color does not ever stop being their particular race regardless of cultural consumption, and often these two factors are blended by ethnic minorities. But being part of a minority does not make you the authority on what it is, culturally, which makes someone part of that minority, nor does being part of the mainstream culture fundamentally change your experience of race.
This is the point in the column where I admit to also having told people that they’re “pretty white” because they don’t adhere to what I expect from them.
Coming from an immigrant family or being part of an ethnic minority often means that you — consciously or unconsciously — view yourself in degrees of assimilation. There’s a reason that people talk about how many generations removed from foreign birth they are, as if the degree of one’s cultural assimilation is a function merely of time. Which, granted, it is in some amount.
I think there’s a tendency among immigrant-descended minorities to measure oneself by how “white” you are versus how “your race here” you are. While I can only speak to my subjective experience and the experiences of those that I know personally, I know that among my friends the term “banana” and “fob” were pretty popular. Banana, meaning yellow on the outside and white on the inside, and fob, meaning fresh-off-the-boat. All of these are crude terms that measure how assimilated you are into the mainstream culture, and the mainstream culture is conflated with whiteness.
Of course, the logical dismissal of my argument is to say that I’m making a big deal over a phenomenon that, in the end, lacks obvious malice. It’s verbal shorthand for description of a person’s particular interests and cultural tendencies. But conflation of popular culture or particular experiences and tendencies with race only serves to uphold the assumption that experience is synonymous with race.
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