Who do we become when we have nothing to hide?

On authentic belonging and freedom

Hi friends, it’s been an intense spring filled with old grief and new revelations as I write about belonging in this year filled with anti-Asian violence. This week's post is one of the most difficult things I've ever tried to put into words... My hope is that it sheds new light on what authentic belonging means for you too! Much love, M.


We all hide.

Hiding can be a way of staying alive, like nature’s compassionate offer to retreat in wintry ground until the season is ripe for us to emerge. Or, like the protective shade of trees in blazing summer sun, it can keep us covered until we’re ready to step into the light of being seen.

Yet at some point, hiding outlives its usefulness. Stay in the shade too long, we wither.

And when it comes to race, I’ve been grieving how despite my efforts to “hide” my ethnicity through assimilation, it hasn’t granted me safety from anti-Asian violence.

Plus, I’m seeing how my hiding has inadvertently protected you from not seeing what you need to see, making all of collectively less safe.

Let me explain.


My earliest memory of hiding starts at the age of 7.

I was playing at my friend Sarah’s house, and her mom asked us to go the neighbor’s house to pick up a package. As we knocked on the door, Sarah warned: “Their house smells weird because they’re Chinese. Sorry.”

I burned white hot with shame.

Did she not realize I was Chinese too? Did she think my house smelled, or that I was weird because I was Chinese?

Like all 7 year olds, I wanted to be liked. And so, I said nothing. I hid my discomfort so she wouldn’t feel uncomfortable, and managed to marginalize not just myself, but also other Chinese-Americans!

Of course, my 7 year old self didn’t understand the dynamics of race that unfolded in that moment. I didn’t know that Sarah was comparing everything to the norm of herself. Though she had innocent intentions, she didn’t have the empathic capacity to see how her words cut. And in not letting myself be seen, I perpetuated Sarah’s blindness to her own blindness (which in retrospect likely included her own fear of me rejecting her).

All I knew in that moment was that I wanted to hide; but there was nowhere to go. There was no protective shade.


This was a small sleight. On its own, no big deal.

But repeated cuts large and small that tell us that we don’t belong spin up the body’s natural impulse to avoid or protect against future cuts. And shame, the emotion of hiding, only amplifies this drive.

To manage the chronic stress of tenuous belonging, we pack animals often trade some of our individuality for belonging. It’s an ancient instinct from hunter gatherer times when being cast out was a literal death sentence. Rather than face lions alone, we gave up some of our selves for protection of the tribe.

The problem? Hiding is a progressive habit that takes a toll. Fitting ourselves in can eat away at us until we become unrecognizable even to ourselves.

For decades, I used achievement — degrees from Harvard and Yale, and a blue chip résumé — as a way to try to earn my place in the tribe. But the more I achieved, the more distant I felt from myself. I’d wonder, where did the real me go?

While contorting myself to others’ expectations may have bought me social acceptability, it never led to genuine belonging where I could be fully seen. At best, I’d fit in while my true self remained hidden.

So long as I felt my authentic self needed to be exiled, I was going to continue to operate from unsustainable strategies of hustling to earn my worth — burning me out, robbing me of my capacity for true rest, and never feeling like I could enjoy the fruits of the seeds I’d planted.


But belonging can feel chronically out of reach if basic safety isn’t available. And for generations of Asian-Americans, being ourselves felt dangerous and hiding the only survival strategy.

From the mid 1800s through mid last century, Asians were one of America’s most despised minorities — a “yellow peril” deemed uncivilized, unclean, and an ominous existential threat to the Western world. This dehumanization opened the door to systemic violence like the largest mass lynching in American history (i.e., the L.A. Massacre of 1871 where a mob attacked, tortured, and hung 18 Chinese immigrants).

Also frequently overlooked is how Asian labor was exploited similar to how plantation owners treated former slaves. Leland Stanford, for one, wouldn’t have been able to build his railroad fortune and University without exploiting Chinese labor — paying 30-50% of what Irish laborers received while supervisors frequently physically abused them.

That said, things seemed to start to change during the Cold War.

When Soviets spotlighted discrimination against America’s racial minorities to diminish the US’s reputation — successful Asian-Americans began to be celebrated as “model minorities”. In exchange for being what historian Erika Lee calls “proof of American democracy,” we were granted proximity to whiteness and its relative safety.

Phew, right?

No.

The model minority myth offered temporary comfort, but never lasting safety. It traded one kind of mask for another.

And in times of societal and economic stress, this unwritten social contract has frequently been violated. Exhibit A: Vincent Chin’s brutal murder in 1982 by Detroit autoworkers who thought Chin was Japanese and were aggrieved about losing their jobs to Japanese car manufacturers.

Now with near daily reports of attacks on Asian-Americans — most poignantly the mass shooting of 6 Asian-American women in Atlanta in March by a white boy who claimed to be “having a bad day” — the scales have fallen from my eyes, and I now viscerally understand that hiding will not protect me.


So, if hiding doesn’t offer lasting safety or belonging, what does?

Stepping into the light — seeing what’s been hidden, and letting ourselves be seen — so that we no longer need to hide from what’s lurking in the shadows.

Every day since the Atlanta shootings, I’ve sat down to unwind this pattern of hiding by writing about it. But as I’ve started to consciously let myself feel the terror of unbelonging that I shielded myself from at age 7, tyrannies swallowed long ago have resisted excavation.

Although words would well up, they’d get stuck in my throat as if there was a noose around my neck. When I’d grab a shadowy feeling long enough to edge it into the light, I’d become overwhelmed by anxiety and nausea.

Terror has been coursing through my body telling me I can’t belong as I am, only as I have been taught to be. I fear I can only speak what comes from my mask because if I am seen as I am, in my nakedness I will be burned.

But when I’ve been able to perch above the canopy that once shaded me, the more clearly I see that the intensity of the resistance I’m feeling is a signal of the scale of what needs to be seen. Shame, that once felt so personal, I see now is collective and indicative of what we’ve all been hiding.

The resistance has felt like an all-out shadow boxing brawl with two heavyweight opponents at once: the unmetabolized terror of my ancestors, and what writer Isabel Wilkerson calls the invisible architecture undergirding American culture of race-based caste. These muscle men of the status quo have been trying to knock me out with invisible jabs before I step on the landmines they protect.

These landmines aren’t just mine; they’re ours. They’re the terrors we’ve collectively buried to build a society. And they’re what I’ve been trying to protect you from so that I’d stay safe. I’ve feared in no longer hiding you’d blame me for showing me what you have not wanted to see. Because for you to not see — to hide behind the need for power and dominance — has taken a toll on you too.


To be a dominator or victim, means you’re also living in fear of the conditional nature of your social standing and safety.

Constant fear of not having enough security, approval, or control is what’s burning us out, and depleting our collective resources. So long as we don’t know how to find true safety — in ourselves and together — our shared social infrastructure will continue to be built around the terror of feeling “not enough”. We’ll remain addicted to the opioids of “doing” and hustling for “more”. And in our perpetual cultural anxiety, our internal defensiveness will continue to translate into external defensiveness and violence.

When we collectively have nothing to hide, it’s when we can finally build a sustainable foundation for shared safety and authentic belonging. So will you take off your mask with me?


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