I don’t like the term “white-washed” as it is applied to people of color. Sure, we can say that Hollywood is white-washed — PoC stories and characters are frequently replaced with white ones — but to say that PoC themselves are white-washed is degrading.
Many times I’ve heard remarks such as, “She’s in a sorority, so she’s basically white” and “He’s not one of us because he grew up in an all-white neighborhood.”
Once, I was called white-washed by a classmate after she found out that I listened to punk rock (AKA “angry white boy music”). She was suggesting that only white people could enjoy that kind of music, which is a backward way of thinking. Another time, I was called a “banana”— yellow on the outside, white on the inside — for liking Starbucks.
Although I was eventually able to make light of these experiences, I’m aware that others may take great offense to being called white-washed. And on a more serious note, we shouldn’t think of people as having less of a claim to a certain identity just because they don’t conform to our stereotypes. A problem that is particularly relevant to the Asian-American community is thinking that someone isn’t “Asian enough,” or, in extreme cases, a culture traitor, if they don’t speak their immigrant parents’ native language. I worry that we are pressuring people to other themselves rather than establish a genuine connection to their heritage for the sake of being accepted by their fellow PoC.
This business of calling people white-washed seems to stem at least in part from resentment. I recognize that some PoC are more easily accepted by white America than others. Further, I admit that I would be frustrated if another Asian-American was treated better than I was because she appeared more aligned with white ideals. The situation would be unfair, but I would be wrong for being frustrated with her as an individual, especially if I didn’t know much else about her. I would be wrong to invalidate her experience. How she acts could be a result of her upbringing, over which she had little control (as little control as I did over my own upbringing), and I’m not even considering the possibility of cross-cultural adoption.
Instead of judging people for who we think they are, maybe we need to address the structures and practices that favor white normativity in the first place. Maybe we also need to address our internalized racism, including our biases about what belongs to whom.