Remember heritage, imagine identity, stop believing

by Co Shi An

I am not white. I have spent 29 years of life believing I was white. Now I’m realizing it. I’m not white. I am not white and I am also not Yellow. I am, however, Chinese, and Irish. Not white, not Yellow. Chinese and Irish.

Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to white Americans as those “who believe that they are white.” I was one of them. Then the fog was lifted, and identity became more than color. But that doesn’t mean that people still believe. As long as white people continue to believe that they are white and continue to overwhelmingly control wealth in this country, they will continue to be.

Non-whiteness is what coexists as the Janusian complement to whiteness. I am not, unfortunately, white. Nor am I non-white. We can all fall through the cracks if we simply realize we can. As long as white people continue to believe that they are white and exclusively control the wealth of this country, there will continue to be non-whiteness. And as long as whiteness and non-whiteness continue to exist, I will continue to be neither.

I also cannot bring myself to capitalize whiteness. Though I do capitalize Irish and Chinese, and Black, and even Yellow. Even Irish was once non-white. whiteness is a weak ideology that is easily over-endorsed. whiteness is already capitalized—white is Das Kapital. And I capitalize Das Kapital out of respect for the German language, only.

My name is capitalized because it is in Germanic tradition to do so. Andrew (Andy) Robert Costello. My name is four parts white male, who is my father, and zero parts non-white female, who is my mother. Andrew is my father’s middle name, Robert is my father’s father’s name, Costello is my father’s father’s father’s name. My father derived the nickname “Andy” from his own middle name. Sexism and racism collide.

I discovered only a month ago that I have a Chinese name too. It was given to me on the day of my birth by my grandmother. I do not know what it is. I do not know if I will be able to find it. My mother says it may be on a piece of paper tucked in next to my birth certificate. This name was given to me by my non-white mother’s mother. The family name was, likely, the family name of my non-white mother’s father’s father.

I may never learn this name. I can only imagine it. My grandfather is gone, I have no siblings, and my grandmother is 92 and does not remember it. If she saw it written, she would probably read it to me, and possibly remember. My mother is possibly able to read and remember, too. It is likely that these are the only two people in the world that could possibly read and possibly remember. It is also possible that they will not or cannot.

My desire to remember this lost name is my desire to remember non-whiteness. Achieving this desire would be the desire to imagine a distant pre-whiteness. We, as people, could never return completely to pre-whiteness. All we can do is try to remember non-whiteness, and imagine pre-whiteness.

Remembrance and imagination are both laudable. Belief, however, is not. To believe that you are, rather than to imagine what you are or remember what you were, is a mark of blind privilege: belief is a tool to oppress those who do not have the luxury to believe something into reality.

There was a time in my mother’s life, a time in my grandmother’s life, and a time in my mother’s father’s life, that my Chinese given name was written and uttered in my presence. There was a time when pre-whiteness was in fact imagined right in front of me. But no one remembers it. I believed in my whiteness, but I was wrong. I realized I was wrong when I realized that I did not have the power to believe something into reality. (As a half-Irish male, many things in my life have been in fact realized through belief). But I cannot believe my Chinese name into life—I can only imagine it and (try) to remember it.

Remembering is an attempt. Remembering is work. Remembering is painful and uncouth. But it is laudable. When you believe, memory is lost; I do not believe in my Chinese name, I just want to remember it. My imagination of a Chinese name is a temporary, and possibly permanent, compromise of a memory lost to belief.

You, whoever you are, cannot try to remember my name for me. You also cannot believe—nor can you not believe—in my name. You also cannot imagine it. None of these activities are for you to do. You have no right to. The only ones who can participate actively are my family members, and only through the channel of remembering. Imagining and believing who I am is off limits to them as well.

Frankly, I was tired of believing. I think we all are tired of believing. Like remembering, believing is painful, uncouth. But it is not laudable. It is not laudable because it is a tool to oppress those who do not have the luxury to believe something into reality.

I find myself repeating things in order to teach remembrance. I find myself repeating things in order to teach imagination. I find myself repeating things that are subversive to belief, because it requires persistence. Like capitalized “Whiteness,” belief is a weak ideology that is easily over-endorsed. Repetition is how we learn to remember our own name as an infant, our own heritage through language. Repetition is how we imagine what we will become. Repetition is how we learn to remember who we are. Which bares repeating.



About the Author
Co Shi An is a Chinese-Irish hapa raised in Chicago. He has most recently written for NewMusicBox, FOCI Arts and chicshifter, on education, economy and fashion. He lives in Chicago, working as a freelance writer, artist and teacher. He is a member of Asian Americans for Advancing Justice.

Since the writing of this piece, the author has re-discovered his given Chinese birth name, Shi An ( 安), tucked in an envelope with his birth certificate. He currently uses it as his primary name.