What does ‘whitewashed’ mean?
By Daily Bruin Staff
Nov. 17, 1997 9:00 p.m.
Tuesday, November 18, 1997
What does ‘whitewashed’ mean?
Term unfairly targets Asians who have become ‘Americanized’
I am often accused of being "white-washed." Well, how do you
tell if you are "whitewashed"? Here is my humorous take on the
characteristics that make up this curious word.
The first way to tell is if you do not listen to such Asian
artists as Don Ho or Jackie Chan (not the famous Hong Kong stunt
man). If you were "whitewashed," or "Americanized" as my some of my
friends tell me I am, then you would not know these things.
I consider myself a lover of all music genres, but I have never
really listened to Far Eastern tunes. For the most part, they seem
to be nothing more than filtered American music with a touch of
synthesizing. Despite the fact that I am unable to understand a
single word, I must give due credit to the few exceptional slow
jams that are actually quite endearing.
Another way a person can be considered "whitewashed" if s/he
cannot speak the language of his/her ethnicity. All of my close
friends at UCLA can speak fluently in another language. Each of my
roommates is able to speak in a different language, like Cambodian,
Vietnamese or Tew-Chew (pronounced two-chow). But I can only
comprehend a limited amount of Japanese and Spanish, so you can see
how this can create problems.
Understandably, this makes me feel a little insecure. For
example, when two of my friends are speaking Vietnamese and are
making fun of each other, I just sit there with a puzzled look on
my face. It’s difficult enough to hang around a group of people who
have grown up together in the same environment and surroundings,
but add the fact that I can’t converse with them in any language
other than English, and it makes for a greater sense of
I have never had a problem with being called "Americanized,"
because it makes sense since I was born and raised here. I can call
only one place home, and that is Los Angeles. Somehow, though, the
term "Americanized" has become synonymous with "whitewashed." Quite
possibly, the former term may be an extreme version of the latter.
Regardless, I find being called "whitewashed," albeit jokingly,
In my own defense, I am a fourth-generation Japanese person who
only knows about growing up in the United States. When someone
walks into my home, s/he will not see an Asian home, but a modern,
American home, no different from any other, except the family
living within it. I understand that my friends never mean any harm
by chiding me about being "whitewashed," but sometimes it gets to
I know who I am, and I know where I have come from. I am very
proud of my ethnicity and very well-schooled in my own cultural
background. Growing up, my parents did not believe that it was
crucial for me to know how to speak Japanese or follow the old
traditions. They wanted me and my sister to grow up learning how to
do things our own way, Japanese or not.
It’s true that I’m very different from my friends. The term
"whitewashed" is not really a word that describes someone who is
more "white," but someone who has been drained of their culture by
their own actions. Some may say that being "whitewashed" means
living up to the stereotype of being a "model minority," but it is
more likely to be a way of looking at a person who may have
forgotten his or her own cultural and ethnic background.
I know that there are the traditional views on marriage,
relationships, manners, etc. I learned this at a very early age,
and it has stuck with me into the present. The difference is that I
have learned to be more open with my views. I may not have know
what "pho" was until two years ago. I may not have known what or
where the "International Club" was until I first came to college.
(I can see all the faces contorting and the expressions of
disbelief, but this is just me.) I follow my own path, trying to
combine the best of both worlds.
Here’s the situation. Suppose you are just chilling with some
friends, when suddenly they start busting out in another language.
Do you just sit there with a blank look on your face, thinking
"OK?" Or do you start to laugh along with them, even though you
have absolutely no idea of what they are talking about? Chances are
they might even be poking fun at your expense because they know you
cannot understand what they are saying. Well, this has happened to
me many times, and I have reacted in both of the aforementioned
ways. This is an example of what my friends call being
"Americanized," or more blatantly put, "whitewashed." For all of
you who suffer from this so-called disease, read on.
In order for me to put such a topic in perspective, I find it
necessary to relate various opinions. I have used each of my
roommates to interpret and comment on how to determine what being
Two of my roommates share the belief that a person who is
"whitewashed" cannot be specifically categorized or defined. They
believe that the term is more of an expression than an actual word.
They agree that the main distinction comes from a mindset opposite
of what they believe to be traditional Asian values. This mindset
varies from person to person and culture to culture, but can be
generally be regarded as a conservative population with
middle-of-the-road tendencies. Nothing fancy, exotic or out of the
The problem here is that when my friends are joking with me,
they do not take into account the fact that they are basing their
assumptions around knowledge of their own respective cultures. It
really comes down to the individual’s perception.
On the other hand, the last roommate used the terminology in a
completely different and unexpected manner. The first image that
came to mind for him is the view of a foreigner who comes to
America, lives here a while, and then starts to act in a more
"patriotic" manner than American-born citizens.
In other words, they tend to act more American than necessary,
and in the process let their own respective backgrounds wither
The most likely reason behind this is to just fit in, but it’s
possible that people may choose to do this because of a general
unhappiness with their own culture. Or, in a more emotional
perspective, it is a representation of their own displeasure with
Personally, I have never really understood what "whitewashed"
meant. I always figured it was a person trying to be Caucasian,
instead of themselves, and I believed it was the opposite of being
a "FOB" (Fresh off the boat).
The general characteristics would be that I do not fluently
speak an Asian language, I communicate in English clearly, and that
I was not born in East Asia. Even some of my parents’ friends
thought I was weird because of the stereotype that Asians are
better in math and science than English or history. I happened to
perform at higher levels that required composition writing and also
genuinely enjoyed it.
All my life I knew I was different, but not in such a way as to
separate myself from the rest of my relatives while picking up a
few other cultures. Hopefully, like everyone else, I am just trying
to find my place in the world.