My identity is something that I struggle to understand.
When I think about changing my self image, I don’t know where to start. I am often my biggest bully. It’s tiring to hate everything about yourself. To hate what you look like, what you sound like, what you think, and what you feel. To hate your skin color, your eye shape, your religion – it’s exhausting. I don’t know when, or if, I’ll be able to stop. It’s terrifying.
I’m exhausted with myself. I’m exhausted with my thoughts. I’m exhausted with my feelings. I’m mostly exhausted with the world. When the ignorance and bigotry of this country truly came to the surface at the Capitol, all we could do was watch. It hurts me to think of how many people in that terrorist group would hate me simply because of my race, my ethnicity, my religion, and my political affiliations. My existence would warrant their violence.
To see a crowd full of facist and Confederate flags being waved proudly is petrifying. To know that these people are walking around among us instills an anxiety I was never prepared for. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to think. Sometimes, I feel like I shouldn’t be here anymore. I don’t understand why these people enjoy watching others suffer. I ask: what is my purpose if my identity is violently condemned by those who I am surrounded by?
I don’t have a community to fall back on when violent acts of racism occur. My family is white, and almost all of my friends are white. Growing up, I only had one other Asian friend, and she lived over an hour away from me. I’ve never had a community of people to turn to when racial violence happens. It’s difficult to walk through this complex society without people who are similar to you. Within the Jewish community, it’s difficult to be anything other than white. Almost everyone I’ve come across within and outside of the Jewish community shows some form of surprise when I tell them that I am Jewish because of my overlapping Asian identity. When I turn to the Jewish community when I experience an act of anti-Semitism, I feel as if I don’t deserve the support because I don’t feel and look Jewish enough.
Whenever I talk about the problems I face when discussing my identity as an Asian Jew, it feels as if I have to dance around the truth. One day that will change, but for now, race is something I must write delicately about. The complex relationship between Judaism and race adds another layer of difficulty. After the Jewish Journal published my essay about white privilege and Judaism, I received comments and responses from people who understood their privilege, and those who did not. I was told that the term “white Jews” should not be in my vocabulary. This idea completely erases my personal experience and the experience of some Jews of color. Denying the differences between being a white person and a person of color regardless of religion or ethnicity is the main problem at hand.
I find myself at the intersection of multiple identities, making it difficult for me to find a grasp just who I am. I don’t feel “Asian enough,” and I don’t feel “Jewish enough.” I don’t have a solid idea of what either of these identities mean to me. I want to feel proud of my Asian identity, but because I wasn’t raised in an Asian environment, I don’t know what it means to me. I try to feel proud of my Jewish identity, but I’ve been alienated from this community over and over. In a country where I’m blamed for the “Chinese virus” and neo-Nazi flags are waved loud and proud, how am I supposed to be proud about either of these things?
I feel overwhelmed as I try to juggle these identities and sort through the discrimination attached. In a world that profits off of self-hatred, I feel like the highest bidder. I try not to see myself as a victim, but as a part of a flawed system. The idea of fully coming to terms and accepting my identity is foreign to me. I try to wrap my head around it, but somehow I always seem to come across a new aspect that I didn’t take into consideration before.
As I struggle there is a ray of light: I wonder if it’s a bit narcissistic to subject myself to such a deep self-hatred. Constantly looking inward rather than outward prevents me from seeing the world around me. Because I am constantly trying to figure out who I am, I neglect the fact that my identity will always be changing. I cannot remain the same person forever. I am slowly realizing that maybe it is OK to not have an identity that fits perfectly in one place. If anything, being unique has more positives than negatives. Self discovery is a lifelong journey that we all must go through, one step at a time.
Mae-Lou Zeleski grew up in Danvers and attends UMass-Amherst.