At some point in my education I realized that, if I just stay quiet in class, people will often assume that I am smarter than I am. People reveal their stupidity all the time by speaking up, but I look like I would be good at schoolwork. I am East Asian and I speak English well. I found that if I quietly hit the markers of intelligent-enough, study up on the side, and try to figure out what the instructor is asking for, I can pretty much sail by, class participation be damned. I’m starting to feel the strains of this in grad school — my reticence to raise my hand, to take up space, to risk answering a question wrongly and reveal that maybe I too have faults. I can contribute this also to pressures as a young Asian female to not make waves. Everyone loves an amiable Asian girl, but one that rocks the boat? I can already feel the disgust and judgment. In the end, though, nobody questions my presence in class, at a university.
My mom once told me that she wondered, when she was at college, about whether she was an Affirmative Action student. She felt the questioning gaze of others, of whether she rightly belonged. Her advisor asked her if she was there to find a husband or take school seriously, because she wasn’t doing that well in class. I don’t know if her advisor knew that college was also a ticket out of the family flower farm, where she had worked with her siblings on weekends and evenings after school as long as she could remember. These are experiences that are difficult for me to grasp. I understand on an intellectual level what that means, but personally is a different story. I will never fully know how being a second generation college student has shaped my experience and helped propel me across the country to attend a private university, to fight for a space for myself and people like me — people of color — and to continue to be involved in this system professionally and academically. How would my experience have been different if I was the first in my family to go to college? Where would I have focused my efforts if I didn’t have this basis of knowing that, in the end, I deserved to be there?
I currently co-advise a student group that I founded with some friends when we were undergraduates. We were lucky to find the institutional support for this scrappy program, and seeing students continue to cycle through after four years — learning, growing, moving on to bigger projects and emboldened through their experiences to continuously do better — has been humbling and invigorating. On Halloween we went to see the new musical Allegiance. Sometimes, in the Japanese American community, the discussion of internment feels like a ghost that needs to be put to rest. The musical, however, stirred up some serious emotions in me, and I spent most of the time wiping snot and tears from my face. It’s hard to say it in ways that haven’t been said before, but we are capable of such atrocities when we do not actively fight our internal fears and prejudices, when we don’t acknowledge the barriers we create for ourselves and others, and when we do not work to constantly tear these fears, prejudices, and barriers apart. The Japanese Internment did not appear out of nowhere due to a small group of racist individuals. It was not just a sudden retaliation to Pearl Harbor, but the result of years of discrimination, of denial of citizenship, land, jobs, relationships, culture and the twisting of all of these to look like the fault of the Japanese Americans. The burden was placed on the Japanese Americans — citizens, immigrants, orphans, children, the elderly, and everyone in between — to prove their loyalty to the US. But what does loyalty look like and how many of us ever have to prove it to another? Internment was the result of centuries of us-vs.-them. Of The Orient and the Occident, Western and Eastern, colonization and manifest destiny. And of looking like the enemy. No loyalty test could undo the pervasive hate and mistrust that was woven in American society. The loyalty test was just a part of that.
After the musical we held a small debriefing in a cafe in Times Square. Midway through, one student interrupted us, “Oh my god, is he dressed like a terrorist?!” We all looked out the window and there, strolling past, was an unmistakable white man wearing some sort of blue and white “turban” and khaki fatigues with a mock suicide bomb vest. I know, shit like that circulates on the internet every year around Halloween. Every year we are outraged, but somehow not surprised. But to see it in person, so casually, was sickening. It was a gross display of white male privilege, belittling not only the pain and trauma caused by actual terrorist attacks, but also the very real potentials of hate crimes and discrimination that many face simply for looking anything remotely like the enemy, or a caricature of the enemy. For many in this country, simply existing could leave you paralyzed, dead, facing regular harassment and threats to your safety, or all of the above. For many in this country, the way you look signals to others that your life and safety are less valuable than a white person’s. That you may not have pure incentives, and thus probably deserve whatever violence or hate comes your way. Claiming “free speech” or arguing “oversensitivity” does not absolve anyone of this violence, it only makes it more insidious.
There are connections in all of this to what happened and is happening in Ferguson, Baltimore, South Carolina, Texas. To all of the hate crimes before and after across the country and even in “liberal bastions”. To what students are fighting for at Mizzou and Yale and Claremont McKenna and yesterday at NYU. Not every struggle is the same, not every violence is the same but racism is pervasive everywhere we go. It is shutting people of color down and out. It is not just individual acts, but it is embedded in every level of society, from kids entering the criminal justice system from school to asking a Muslim person if he or she is related to Osama bin Laden, from believing that Mexicans are rapists, drug dealers, and job stealers to sidelining indigenous people while wearing “Native-inspired” clothing. It is in the way people of color are hired to meet a “diversity” quota. It is believing that “diversity” is the solution.
It is a problem that I am complicit in also. I sit in class and do not speak up, do not challenge the model minority myth. I actually benefit from the model minority myth and quietly serve as a bullshit example for white people to show black and brown people that, see, racism can’t be so bad if the Asians are overcoming it. Meanwhile, I am not being stopped and frisked, am not treated with hostility and fear, am not assumed to have the million of outrageous, terrible, and contradictory labels assigned to black and brown folks.
I am quiet when the evangelist on the subway tells me that Muslims are violent. When friends make jokes about Black people, believing that I am of the same mind, I am shocked but also afraid to disagree and to “go down that road.” When tensions arise, I work to just smooth it out. We believe that we are not racist people but when we do not fight against displays of racism and we remain neutral or even benefit from it, can we really refuse that label? Maybe we are not racist people, but people with racist habits? What is the difference?
Sometimes, I know, we are tired. We are afraid. We are inconvenienced. It is not the burden of people of color to educate and inform those in power with their pain. It is taxing physically and mentally and the stressors are manifesting as health problems and mortality rates, highest in Black Americans. But I see the cis, white boy in my class constantly raising his hand, taking up physical space with his legs on two chairs. I hear him wasting the entire class’s time with self-serving questions and I do not want to be like that. I do not want to speak up so much that I push others out. Oh but how I dream every day of shutting. him. down. because he does not leave enough space for everyone else, and most especially the marginalized voices in class.
I have to remind myself of Assata Shakur’s words:
It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
There is much more to say, but I’m ending it here for now. I have papers to write and workshops to prepare and I am still chasing this nebulous goal of getting-enough-sleep. Moving forward I want to make a conscious effort to not just do occasional posts on race but really integrate it into my regular writing as well. I am still trying to fight my own privileges and narrow views to consider how I can shape my work to so that it supports those who are most marginalized from the mainstream and from power and their own autonomy. I am far from getting it right. Thoughts, responses, constructive critiques welcome.