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As I’m typing, I’m listening in on a room I wouldn’t have had much opportunity to step into before. It’s a room on digital accessibility, and it’s on Clubhouse.
Access to great conversations that I didn’t know were going on is just one reason I love this new social-media app, but as I drilled down into why I enjoy it so much, I realized that I love it for its diversity of expertise; its more democratic model of leadership, and the way it’s helping me to normalize different accents and broaden my world. Read on about all of that here.
In July, I started a new publication called Reads & Eats. (View it here.) Each month, I pen an essay about an American food I’m obsessed with, from club sandwiches to Long John Silver’s crumbly bits and everything in between. I also feature an emerging writer. It’s my way of sharing my platform as a published writer and professional editor.
Here’s what you need to know to submit to Reads & Eats.
You must be:
- An emerging writer with fewer than five paid publications. None of these publications should be a book.
- Marginalized (I do not ask for proof or anything like that.)
Your submission must be:
- A work of either fiction or nonfiction prose
- 1250 words or fewer
- Pasted into the body of your email
- About food in some way
- E-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org
I accept 25 submissions per month. If I have reached this cap, you will get an autoreply. Please wait until the 8th of the following month to submit again.
Writers get paid $100, and I buy first Internet and Online Rights for two months. After that, all rights revert to you. Please reference Reads & Eats in future publications. You also get a free yearlong submission to Reads & Eats.
That’s it! Super easy, but write to me if you have any questions.
Years ago, at my MFA program, a person who was considering joining the MFA test-drove a workshop. After, the new guy came up to me and said, “I just wanted to tell you, you’ve adjusted to life in America really well.”
It had been a long time since I had heard something like this, so I just smiled and said, “I’ve lived here a long time.”
Some of you will be horrified reading this. You will say, “Oh! He was so rude! He should not have said that to you!” To you, I say, thank you for being offended, but I have not given you some key information: This man was at least in his late 60s. He had come from rural Washington state. He probably did not interact with a lot of minorities, and he was genuinely trying to give me a compliment. To people like this I give a little grace. And anyway, his was not the real infraction. The real infraction came later. My professor and I debriefed a little about this incident. I approached them about it. I just felt like it had to be addressed. But I’m sure I laughed about it, treating it as if it was some kind of aberration–Can you believe that guy? I am sure they said something like, “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
This encounter, this laughing and this debriefing, happened in front of some other students and a guest faculty member of some standing, further evidence of how little weight I gave it. While I was talking to my professor, I noticed the guest faculty, who I’ll call B.D., over their shoulder, gazing off into the distance. He was well within earshot, and I remember thinking how odd it was that he did not exhibit any kind of shock over what I had experienced in class. He was deliberately escaping it, I felt, or trying not to take part in a conversation that was not for him. But my professor gripped my hands and repeated something like I can’t believe that guy, and we eventually parted, them to their dinner engagement with said guest faculty member, me to the bar, I’m sure.
Are you ready? Here’s the infraction.
We revisited later, my professor and I. And they said, “I’m really sorry that we brought that up in front of B.D. He must have thought we were nuts.”
At the time, I felt a deep sense of shame. Yeah, I said. Sorry about that.
I can’t remember what they said.
I no longer give a fuck, except I do. Because this fact—the fact that I felt bad for causing someone discomfort over a bad thing that had happened to me—makes me complicit in what is happening today. My apology, the fact that I’ve not been able to comprehend until now what was happening at the time; the thirty-some-years I spent trying to “fit in” (read: be more white) before I published my first novel from a minority perspective and realized Oh shit, I am going to have to market this thing like an Asian-American, because that’s who I am and that’s what white America sees and this book with this character who speaks perfect English and swears like a sailor but who is Asian is going to be confusing for some of them; the hundreds of times I valued people’s comfort over making them practice my name until they could get it right—all of this makes me complicit in perpetrating a system that allowed the deaths of so many black people.
“America is convulsing,” writes Melvin Rogers in a post on George Floyd and police brutality and the protests that followed. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about yet—say you live in a different country—please read on here, and then come back.) “Convulsing” is accurate. But there are two different kinds of convulsion going on: Yesterday I read a post on Facebook that yelled, “racism has no place in 2020,” and an immediate comment afterwards that said that when the commenter watched the tape of George Floyd’s murder, he “saw police brutality, not racism.” The commenter was ostensibly asking a question, but when I pointed out that police brutality was a symptom of systemic racism, he immediately dismissed me: “People seeing what they want to see.” (It’s worth noting that the original poster had not made an attempt to clarify.)
And then some other jackhat piled on, saying that there was an Asian cop, there, too, so there, or something like that.
It was at this point that I left the thread after chucking in one more hail-Mary, something about how Asian people aren’t immune to acting on behalf of systemic racism, duh. But these white men were not going to listen to me. So I left the thread, and I asked a white friend to step in, because white people only really listen to other white people. A rubber band had snapped in my head. I had been civil as long as I possibly could, and I knew I was no longer capable of it.
But then I realized two things. First, I have spent forty-five years (that’s how old I am, coincidentally) training myself to be civil. I have amassed a vast library of diplomatic linguistic gymnastics that I can deploy at will. I practice them. I try and educate myself in logic and the art of having the difficult conversation so that everyone walks away feeling okay about themselves.
Some of this is rightful: I have a big voice, and I’m a tall woman, and I grew up in a household where we were bullied a lot, so I spent a huge part of the first half of my life acquiring and defaulting to a lot of bluster and useless noise, and I wanted to divest myself of that, speak more concisely and with more meaning. I spend some time in humanitarian relief and the stakes are higher there, so I’m happy to continue to try and built a cushy, comfy place for every one to have conversations in, even if they’re dominated by white men, so we can make people’s lives better after hard events like conflict or earthquakes. And I teach, so I want my classroom to be a place where students can really learn, and that means a light touch.
But some of this is wrong. Every time I overlook a comment that sits wrong with me; every time we don’t have the difficult conversation about that thing you said, I am favoring the continuation of a racist system that values some people’s comfort over others.
Second, I did not give a rat’s ass about these people I was fighting with. They did not matter to me, and they were surely the responsibility of the person who listed them as “friends.” At the very least, they are the responsibility of themselves.
Oh! Some of you will say. One bad apple does not mean a bad system. These examples are just anecdotal. In fact, someone once said this to me, when I brought to their attention the fact that a racist had been working with us. This person would jovially call out for his Korean wife, or Cambodian wife. Of course he meant me, because I was the only Asian around. And of course I laughed it off, until I couldn’t anymore. (Remember when I said I was complicit?) “A company’s culture does not define its systems,” this person said, and I about lost my shit. We were on video conference, though, so I carefully re-arranged my face from disbelief to deferential. “For the sake of this conversation and in hopes of some action on this front, I’ll let you have that, although I seriously disagree,” I said, or something like that.
Friends, I have a lot of practice rearranging my face. A white friend from high school once told me me that she was pretty sure she knew more about growing up as a minority in the town we grew up in than I did growing up poor. I said to this person, “Let’s keep talking about this. It’s important.” This required some re-arranging of my insides, as well.
I said earlier that I was complicit. You’re complicit, too. Every single time you expected someone to “be civil,” to “have a reasonable conversation about this”; every time you shied away from calling a racist comment what it is; every time you valued someone else’s comfort over righting a wrong, you were complicit. Every time you stood by thinking that “liking” a minority friend’s comment showed enough support when they were fighting some racist blow-hard friend of yours? This is why we are where we are today. You valued your comfort, your relationships to the offender, over what was right. That day, you showed me where I stood in your social strata, how much you value me.
By now you are wondering, Hell, when is she going to get to her meanifesto, already? And you are wondering why I’ve misspelled it, because you know I am a stickler for correct spelling and grammar.
We are here.
First, some realities:
- America is a nation founded on racist ideologies and white supremacy. Here, read up on Levittown, Long Island, one of the first-ever suburbs. Thomas Jefferson believed blacks were inferior. The division between black people and white people was written into the colonial law in the 1600s. And after that, the courts were the ones who decided who was white and who was not. There is “white” and there is “other.” Everything else follows. These are incontestable facts; don’t @me like that one student who wrote to me to tell me she disagreed with a dictionary definition.
- 47 of the U.S.’s 50 governors are white.
- Congress is 80% white.
- The industry I work in, publishing, is 87% white.
These figures in and of themselves do not make a nation racist. What makes it racist is the belief that white is better. This is experience I have lived, and this belief is instilled in us from a very young age. It isn’t our fault. It is in the air we breathe.
Second, the pledge I am making to myself, my meanifesto:
I will not value my comfort, nor anyone else’s comfort, over breaking this system of inequity.
Here’s what this means for our interactions:
- I expect you to do your homework. A more diverse world is a better world for you. Invest in it. Read books by black authors. Read up on your American history as it pertains to white supremacy and black people, and no, your eighth-grade history class doesn’t count, because your textbook does not tell you what you need to know.
- Get ready to experience discomfort. I expect you to make me uncomfortable, too, when I do something wrong. And I will go wrong. We have a lot to learn.
- I usually default to nice. That may happen less now.
- I’m going to be asking a lot more questions.
- We will talk about race. There will be no more euphemisms.
- I may come across as mean to you, or tactless. I’m okay with that.
- I’m going to be prioritizing compassion (more on that below).
Two interactions in the academic space are on my mind. First, one in which a Latinx instructor serving on a diversity and inclusion committee with me lamented that he never knew when the right time was to bring up diversity. It is always, always the right time. And second, when the well-meaning white instructor of a class I’m taking in creative nonfiction asked after our well-being and then wrote, “I know that we’re all here to learn and grow as writers, not necessarily to discuss politics or racism.”
This comment illustrates the problem I have with most conversations about race and politics: For minorities or immigrants living in white America, who cannot escape the fact of our race, every space is a space to discuss politics and racism. This is my life, because white America sees me as other and treats me accordingly. But white Americans do not live my life. They do not have to cart around a face that immediately conjures up all kinds of stereotypes; a name that immediately has people wondering, “Oooh, what exotic locale is she from?” (This is just the way our brains work. I am not blaming anyone for prejudice, although being aware of it helps a lot.)
White people are not playing on the same ball field as minority America. No wonder all of our conversations are screaming matches: We cannot hear each other from our individual stadiums, much less see each other. We aren’t even working from the same knowledge base.
There’s been a lot of call for empathy. I don’t have much patience for it. You, a white woman or man, cannot possibly know what it is like to live an Asian woman’s life. You cannot empathize with me. I cannot empathize with a black man. But we can have compassion for the idea that our lives may be different due to the color of our skin. You can leave space for a deeper understanding. You can try to visit my playing field and see what it looks like.
I have said a lot here. I’m going to close with two requests. Please take some time out of your day to take one of the Implicit Association Tests. You need to know which implicit biases you are carrying around, even if you are one of those who claims you do not see color. I suggest starting with the one that addresses skin tone preference.
Also, here is a great list of books to read. I will add two more to this list: Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be and Doug Stone’s Difficult Conversations. Books on the list provide context and background. The two I am recommending provide concrete steps to put what you’ve learned into play.
Don’t go around blind. It’s a colossal waste of time, time that you could be using getting to know the America we live in and love.
Have a nice day.
The former director of the MFA program I graduated from signs all of his emails “Keep writing.”
I used to think, oh! That’s nice. A little boost to my day, a reminder to keep pen to paper even when I’m feeling blue or confused or unmotivated or scattered. (All things that happen.)
But now we are looking at a pandemic. A whole country has shut down. My partner is WFH for the foreseeable future. The hospitality industry is tanking; the stock markets are plummeting; the world as we know it is changing and looking like an even bigger dumpster fire than it was last month. So how can we view something like art in an appropriate fashion?
Art, after all, is elective. It’s a leisure activity. It’s what you do when you have a long afternoon to kill and a rainy forecast. Movies, books, museums.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially since I teach in two MFA programs. My students are non-traditional students, many of whom have been working for some time and who have jobs and families that often have nothing to do with their advanced studies. I’m writing this in part for them, because I want them to know:
Without art, there is no record of what we were. Where we have been. Who we were.
But it goes deeper than that, from my point of view. When we write, or paint, or make a film, we are letting the end user share in our sense of discovery, in our sense of wonder and confusion and fear. And in the process of crafting these paragraphs and sentences, in the process of laying down blobs of color or taking that photo, we understand ourselves a little bit more.
And without this deep, internal understanding of why we’re feeling what we’re feeling, we don’t have a real hope of learning from history. Of understanding why we do what we do.
Ultimately, it’s not the end result that matters so much as the process of getting to the end result.
So yeah. Keep writing. Keep producing. Keep trying to make sense of whatever’s going on in your world. It’s worth the effort, especially now.
Kyle’s parents were believers, whom Kyle describes as “well-meaning white people.”…Before Kevin [Kyle’s husband], Kyle does not remember talking about race at the family dinner table. Kyle says, “[My parents] had never thought of the systems narrative.” When Kyle and Kevin explained how tailwinds benefit well-meaning white people, moral identity reflexes kicked in….”But I am a good person,” Kyle’s mom, Jodi, protested. “I’m not a racist.”The Person You Mean to Be, Dolly Chugh, pg. 131
Consider the differences in a world experienced by a young person in 2018 versus 1998 versus 1968 versus 1948. We are each a product of the time and place in which we live. Look for the opportunity to ask someone of a different time and place about his or her perspective. Reverse mentoring sounds very formal, but it can be casual. Start a conversation with a young cashier or a young colleague or a young relative.The Person You Mean to Be, Dolly Chugh, pg. 141
One thing I really love about Chugh’s book is the way the challenges she sets for us seem to cascade into each other, and the way that her anecdotes eventually build to paint a complete picture of the way that we can apply what we’ve read and the people we met in the pages of her book to our own lives. If you’re reading along with me, or following this series so that you see how I’m applying what Chugh teaches us, I’d love to hear what you’ve gleaned so far.
As I’m diving deep into how each part of this book makes me think or reconsider, I feel, as I heard a guest on newsradio say in the wee hours of the morning after President #45 won the 2016 election, a sense of alertness. “I feel awake,” she said, when asked how seeing a racist and a sexist in the White House made her feel, and although I can’t remember who it was, I still remember the tone of her voice. She sounded surprised, as if she didn’t know what she’d say until the words actually popped out of her mouth.
I feel this way, too—awake, to how I see things, and how events and circumstances make me react. I feel like everywhere there are opportunities for me learn and grow, whereas before I feel like I was scuttling around in the dark, looking for the right verbiage with which to express myself.
The big reveal of the first quote above is that “Jodi” is Jodi Picoult, who’s written a number of best-selling novels that explore a wide variety of social situations. The upshot is that, despite the fact that Picoult is a “good person” who tackles “the hard issues” in some of her books, she hadn’t even been aware to the idea that she might be carrying around some systemic baggage.
And in the verbiage around the second quote, Picoult reveals how much she’s learned from her son and his husband, and how listening to them allows her to be reverse-mentored. (I think this phrasing, which is from Jack Welch, is about the traditional model of mentoring being old-person-to-young-person.)
I haven’t noticed a lot of reverse mentoring in my life. I think this is because I grew up in a household that regularly told kids we don’t know anything. Now, I just assume I know nothing, although in my teens and twenties and probably my early and mid-30s, I was keen to prove I already knew everything.
So yeah, I think I can probably say that it’s just in the last decade that I’ve begun to embrace “I don’t know” as a place of comfort and curiosity, rather than defaulting to a defensive position.
Some of that probably has to do with seeing my parents come late to knowledge. Our family and extended family identifies as Buddhist and Confucist. (I myself practice neither, although elements of each are interesting to me.) In Confucianism, here is no room for anything but respect when it comes to older and younger: the elder is always right. (Further, the wife is always obedient to the husband, but that is a whole ‘nother bag of worms.) So, in my parents’ societal construct, there was never a possibility that they could learn from any younger people. We’ve reached a kind of equilibrium now, and they’re asking about things that I think they should have known ages ago (LGBTQ! The role nonprofits play in society! How readers can tell a poem is a poem!), and this depresses me.
The other part of it has to do with the fact that I’m 45, but I kind of stopped counting at 30, or something. A while ago a younger friend said to me, about a mutual friend, “Mm, she’s more your age,” [emphasis mine] and I had to reconfigure my thought process about just how old I was. Part of me takes comfort in the idea that I’ll always be young and stupid, and that there will always be something to learn.
The unintended effect of all of this is that I had to fight my way to seeing that everyone out there can teach us something. It’s a thing I repeated to myself over and over all the way through my twenties until it became quickly proven to me and then just became habit. It keeps me happy, I think, knowing that knowledge, or another perspective, is right around the corner, and that my only job is to be open to it.
And while I think that phrase—”reverse mentoring”—only addresses the idea that traditional mentoring is done older person to younger person, it’s important to me to recognize that we often unconsciously put people in varying strata of experience, skills, and knowledge. Maybe because they don’t speak English as well as we do. Maybe because they’re younger, sure, but maybe because they don’t work in our chosen profession, say, and so don’t have the same knowledge set we do. (Why, for instance, would I expect my doctor father to understand what a poem looks like, and be able to identify it? Would he expect me to be able to identify a rash?) Or maybe because we’re too quick to write off what they do know as irrelevant to the things we care about.
These are all mistakes I’ve made. I’m glad to have been proven otherwise by people who were patient enough with me, and to have had time in this life to rectify those mistakes.
18 years ago, my friend Andrew said to me that he thought kindness was a function of time. (I wrote about this here.) Until very recently (last night!) I thought it meant that *I* needed to give myself the time and space to be kind. But I think now that it’s more complicated than that. I think it’s that we need to be cognizant that change takes time and space. And that it’s not going to happen overnight, but that if you can be aware that time and space are broad, then maybe you will eventually see the breadth of what you don’t know.
And this, eventually, will lead to kindness, too.
I recently had a conversation with my cousin’s daughter. (In Taiwanese she’d call me aunt.) She’s in her mid-twenties. I remember my mid-twenties. A little while ago our conversations started to shift. Before, she was asking me for advice. Now, we talk to each other. Over Thanksgiving dinner, puzzling out a big overarching thing I was struggling with, I asked her if she thought it was more important to be kind or to be right.
“It depends,” she said. “If you think you can help someone to see a different perspective, then I think it’s more important to be right. But with people like our parents? It’s more important to be kind.”
I agree with her. And I also think that I can see how kindness is still the pathway to being “right,” whatever we think that means. Regardless of what our perspective is, we’ll never get someone else to see it if we’re, well, mean.
I’m not sure how to end this post. I just know that I’m so grateful for all the people with different perspectives out there, even if I’m not ready to hear them yet. At some point, I think I’ll have to take the time to listen more carefully.
My series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be will resume with my next post, but today I want to talk to you about something cool that happened yesterday.
Tuesday evening was rough. Last week I tried out for a writing gig in a space I’m really interested in—organizational psychology, loosely—and haven’t worked in yet. I don’t think I realized at the time how much it would matter to me to not get it.
I went to bed feeling crappy after I got the news and woke up with a pissiness hangover. It was even worse because I’d just come off an epic weekend where I shared a portion of my newest work-in-progress for the first time and got to meet up with some old friends. It always makes a work feel real when you read it into a room—now that other people know of its existence, it’s like you have to make it happen. Before that, it’s all just theoretical, to my mind.
Anyway. Being disappointed is one thing. Knowing I should feel okay about this disappointment because I’d had such a great weekend was quite another, somehow, so I sent this tweet out the Wednesday morning.
When you send a call for help like this out into the Twitterverse, I think there’s a part of you that wonders what kind of response you’ll get back.
The answers I received were heartening. There were ones that have to do with perspective, like this:
And I love this one from a former student of mine, with her reminder that if it matters enough, you’ll find a way to get at it anyway.
In it, she references the first response I got, from a professor I met on Twitter via the writing I’ve been doing about Dolly Chugh’s book. He teaches in the organizational behavior field, too. His answer was striking because his “smile file” is a step we undertook at Tahoma Literary Review to remind us of what keeps us moving forward, but I never took that extra half-step to apply it to my own work.
Later, he sent a photo of his smile file. It’s on his wall; he doesn’t even have to open it! He just turns to it, a pile of cards and notes tacked to a board, and bang! Instant boost.
And then there was some other immediately actionable advice:
And finally, some great advice around personal philosophy.
I think probably the thing I love about all of these is that they come from a place of shared experience: We have all these disappointments. Some of them may feel larger than others, and I suspect the severity of this one has to do with some embarrassment on my part for not performing up to snuff. But seeing that shared experience is what keeps me coming back to social, time and again.
The advice was great, but what really made me pull out of the funk was seeing how many of your coping mechanisms resonated with others.
And as you replied to each other’s comments and added advice of your own, I realized that maybe this was a form of smile file, too; this sensation of a shared space and a community, however ephemeral, built around one person’s temporary disappointment.
This is part 7 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. Chugh writes about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. Buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.
…When we only perceive what we expect, we create an echo chamber. We do not look for or notice disconfirming information….What makes these psychological echo chambers even more problematic is that we also live in social and media echo chambers. These are more willfully created. These are the ones we choose….Dolly Chugh, The Person YOU Mean to Be, pp 100-102
A PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) American Values Survey asked participants to name up to seven people with whom they regularly discussed important matters….They found that 75 percent of whites, 65 percent of blacks, and 46 percent of Hispanics had homogenous networks composed exclusively of people sharing their own race.”
You know how the universe sometimes conspires with you? You’ll look at your calendar and see three meetings with varying parties and friends related to one client, say. Or you’ll realize that, on a day you have an appointment for your dog at the vet, you also notice a new bird you haven’t seen before, or make a new friend who’s studying to be a vet.
Some people say that that’s all just your brain being aware of opportunities that “go together.” Another friend likes to say it’s whatever “energy” you’re putting out there when you book the appointment, or the meeting. It might just be sheer, magical coincidence.
I don’t actually care what it is that makes these things group; I just like that they do. And I like all the explanations, actually.
In the past seven days, I have spent quality time with six friends I’ve known since at least high school. I had drinks with one of them last night; drinks with another two Wednesday night, and spent last weekend with three others. All of this time with old friends, people who know you so well that they’ve accepted all of your bumps and warts and expect more, has me re-assessing why it is we go back to some people again and again.
Because the truth is, I’ve been sitting on top of the task that Dolly Chugh sets to us in the quote I posit I above for more than a month. Her work implicitly challenges us to examine our own networks, and the extent of our own echo chambers. It’s much easier for me to feel good about the fact that I have old friends who work in widely varying fields, and who I’m proud of knowing and want to keep forever, than it is to acknowledge that my own networks are really, really homogenous.
But this is where it gets really tricky. Because, see, I’m part of a “model minority.” And in recent years, I’ve read or seen a good number of studies that show that Asians are often lumped in with whites: we have similar income trends for instance. And we have similar educational profiles, as well. I think we tend to disappear. (Read this essay, from Matt Salesses, for another valuable viewpoint.)
More anecdotally, the stereotype of Asians not wanting to rock the boat, of just quietly slotting in, fits neatly into this narrative, as well. And actually, maybe it’s not a stereotype. My parents told me regularly to just be quiet, hunker down and get my work done. While, of course, earning the best grades in school and being popular, or something. (Spoiler alert: neither of these things happened.)
All of this is to explain that most of my friends were–and are–white. Of the friends I met over the course of the last week, my high school friends, only one of them isn’t white; she’s Iranian. So while Chugh comments that whites, blacks, and Hispanics have networks that comprise mostly their own races, well…I don’t have that issue. But it doesn’t make me feel any more diverse, because for a long time I acted like I was white myself.
I don’t really know what to do about this, except to exercise more inclusion in my life. I’m married to a white guy; my parents are Asian, so is my brother. It’s like, although it’s enough for other people to have more than one ethnicity in their social circles, it’s not enough for me to have Asians and whites in the pool of people I share important things with; I have to have more diversity; be more.
And suddenly, I’m back in high school again, with my parents comparing me to the next kid, over and over: Why can’t you be more popular, like her? Why can’t you be smarter, like her? Why can’t you be more obedient, like her? Why can’t you be quieter prettier care more about your family not quite you?
Listen: I’m not complaining. I like, need, value more viewpoints. Hearing what it’s like from someone else’s point of view is like having a light turned on in a dark room. Yesterday I spent some time with some young Hispanic and Black students as part of a conference I participated in. And one of the panels I was on comprised a white woman, an Indian woman, a black woman, and myself. I loved hearing about their creative processes. I got to spend some additional time with one of the volunteers at the conference. Driving her home, I listened to her talk about the pressures she’s under as a young black woman, what her family expectations are, how she thinks her career in the fine arts is going to shape up.
I hope one day I’ll be able to list her, or someone like her, among the group of people I discuss important issues with.
But for now I have to tell you that the seven people I most discuss important issues with are white or Asian.
My friend Amy
My friend Peter
My friends and neighbors Suzanne and/or Aurelia or both together
My friends Dawn and/or Leigh Anne or both together
Actually, discounting the high school friends (Amy is one), these are just the last sevenish people I discussed difficult or serious things with.
Of them, only my brother is a minority. And he wouldn’t count as being diverse, since he shares my race.
I don’t actually know what to do with this. I didn’t think I’d arrive at this conclusion. I think I thought that I’d just add this to my long list of “to do” items-—consult with more diverse people; make a concerted effort to reach out more often for differing viewpoints. I thought this was going to end on a high note, somehow, that I’d feel energized, after yesterday’s amazing conference, to make more friends. But really, I’m just tired now, and a little depressed. The collision between wanting to be good and my cultural heritage has caught up to me today.
And yet. Two, three weeks ago I was walking Huckleberry in the soccer field by my house when I saw another dog in the field. It was bouncing and happy, and its owner was sitting nearby. I went over and introduced myself and let my dog go, and since then, Huckleberry, Nala, Bruce and I have spent three or four mornings together in the field, talking about everything from work to President Number 45 to our siblings and work and code-switching.
Bruce is 60. He’s black. I am putting him on my list. Because I appreciate him, yes. But also because I need more of his type of wisdom. I didn’t actively reach out to him that first time; I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But maybe being open to those encounters is good, too, even if it’s not “good enough.”
The American entrepreneur Jim Rohn is often quoted as saying that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If I’m thinking of this as an aspirational exercise, rather than a foregone conclusion, I feel a sense of great responsibility.
I want to be more worldly. I want to know what it was like for you, if you grew up Black. Or poor. Or gay or queer or trans. I am none of these things, and I can never be. So maybe it’s not that I am the average of the five people I spend the most time with, but that I am richer, a better person, if I can learn a little more of your story.
This might feel like a false comparison. Chugh is talking about expanding our circles; making our echo chambers less echoey. Jim Rohn is talking about bettering yourself. He’s talking about finding people you admire and looking for ways to spend more time with them so you can be more like them.
But I don’t think these two are all that far removed from each other. Internalizing someone else’s struggle—knowing about it, shining a light on it for yourself, knowing more about it—this can’t be anything but a good thing, can it?
This is part 6 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. Chugh writes about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. Buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.
Many of DENCAP’s customers and health-care providers come from Detroit’s African American, Middle Eastern, and Hispanic communities, so Joe wanted his employees to reflect those communities. Many of DENCAP’s customers are also on Medicaid. “Detroit is 80 percent poor. I want employees to understand what my customer base is struggling with.” …A younger Joe might not have seen these possibilities…He just knew he could do better.Dolly Chugh, The Person You Mean to Be, pp. 92-93
Noticing has been a big part of the journey. Joe began paying closer attention to experiences he may have missed or dismissed in the past.
Part of my volunteer work for ShelterBox involves the distribution of ShelterKits and ShelterBox tents. The former is a set of tools that is usually paired with two robust 4-meter x 6-meter tarps. The family can use the tarps to replace walls that have been taken down by floods or earthquakes, or roofs that have been blown off by hurricane winds.
The latter is our signature piece of equipment. It’s a big white igloo tent that can shelter a family in the most urgent times of need.
Along with this kit, we also distribute kitchen kits, water-purification units, blankets, solar lamps.
And education. We teach the families how to use the equipment we’ve given them so that it can best help them through the weeks and months after a disaster. Things like water-purification units come with a prescribed set of directions. Tents should be erected with tight guy lines, so that the fabric doesn’t flap in wind and isn’t as prone to tearing. And we have a worksheet that tells you how to best use your tarp so that it’ll last a long time, until you can get a real roof or wall up.
But when we come back to check on the families as part of our post-deployment monitoring process, we see some modifications to the family’s kit. Sometimes they’re using the tarp in ways we never envisioned. In the Philippines, where I was most recently, some families were using them as covers for production of their coconut harvest, so they could work longer hours without as much heat exposure. “Oh, that’s cool,” we said. “We haven’t seen that before.”
Some families were using them in still other ways: they had draped the tarps loosely over the frames of their homes, leaving the ends flapping free. We approached the families. “You know, right? That you can use the roofing nails we gave you to nail down the tarp? Here, fold it over, like this”–we demonstrated–“so that the edge will be even stronger. And then put the nails right in.”
“And then, for this one here,” we went on, helpfully, “where you have it doubled over? See? There’s a seam here. You pick at this seam, and rrrrip!-—” we mock-tore at the tarp-—”you now have two tarps!” We may have grinned. “See?”
Our interpreters dutifully gave the instructions. The families nodded politely. And then they told us that they had it hanging so because they didn’t want to put nails into the tarp. That they wanted it to remain whole.
That they couldn’t be sure, in the future, if another, bigger storm might come through, when they needed to have true, strong, whole tarps to depend on, rather than a variety of half-tarps with holes in them. Or they needed them for their harvest. Or their family members who weren’t working and who didn’t have a means of building a new room quickly needed them instead.
These are all systems that were not readily visible to us. Things we couldn’t see right off the bat. Sometimes, it’s hard to see beyond fulfilling what’s an obvious, immediate need.
We are still duty-bound to repeat the education, just in case someone couldn’t be at one of the training events we put on for the community, but I am always interested to hear what the family has to say about how they’re using the equipment we gave them.
Another book I’m reading, Story Genius, presents some methods that help writers to craft great novels. Author Lisa Cron posits that a novel doesn’t go anywhere without the writer understanding what the character’s underlying beliefs are.
As with any theory about process, Cron’s may not work for everyone’s brain. But it definitely works for mine. When I was penning the nineteenth (or thereabouts) draft of my first novel, my thesis advisor begged me over and over again to look for my character’s north star, just so I knew what she was about. And another trusted friend, writer and professor John Brantingham, urged me to make her act in correlation to this north star. “She is a protagonist. She must protag,” read John’s margin notes to me. Between the two of them, I have the single most common piece of advice I pass on to new writers.
Cron and my thesis advisor are pointing to things that lie in the background of any good story. They may not necessarily be stated outright, but they eventually manifest in the character’s actions, to Brantingham’s point. So that everything makes sense. So the narrative rings true.
Without knowledge of this narrative, the writer can’t convey why we are meeting the character at this point in time. And the reader, consequently, won’t care.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that hidden narratives (or, in Chugh’s parlance, hidden systems) underlie a great many misunderstandings. Someone once said to me that they didn’t understand why homeless people didn’t just go out and get a job like the rest of us. Welp, I said, to get a job you need an address. To get an address you need first and last month’s payment, plus a bank account. To get a bank account you need a social security number.
Years ago, someone told a table full of us about the narrow escape he’d had as an exchange student in 1980s Kenya. He said he had nearly been the subject of human trafficking. His host families were about to sell him on the black market. The guy sitting next to me said that this story showed that Kenyans were so corrupt. He wouldn’t mind, he said, if the whole population just up and disappeared. Of course that’s wrong. But what mattered to him then, at the telling of that story, was how awful he felt that our friend had had this happen to him.
A decade ago, the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED talk about about the danger of the single story. You’ve probably seen it, but it’s worth another 15 minutes. Here:
What I told my friend that day draws from the end of Adichie’s talk: No matter what we think of a population, or a group of people, there is always a story we don’t know. There is always a reason things, and people, are the way they are, and do what they do.
In the case of Kenya, we need to look to the long, ugly history of colonization, and lack of representation, and the imbalance of power before we judge what feels like an innately corrupt system.
In the case of my novels’ heroines, we need to understand that the heroine is coming from someplace when we first meet her. She was not just birthed, the minute we open the book.
In the case of the families we help at ShelterBox, we need to keep our minds open to solutions that we can’t, in our need to address the urgency, quite see yet.
What I think I want to posit is this: Seeing hidden systems means we have to step a little bit outside of what’s easy. We need to work to find another narrative, to dig a little deeper into someone else’s story.
But although it might look like work, it feels like joy. It feels like scratching an itch. It feels like satiating some curiosity. This kind of curiosity is exactly the reason that the two Youtube channels titled “How It’s Made” and “How Its Made” have a combined 800,000 subscribers. And why etymology is fascinating. And why science shows and nature documentaries will aways be interesting.
And why, because it’s almost football season here and I’m about to lose Mr. Gooddirt for two days out of the week, instant replay is even a thing. And why I’m always interested in seeing slo-mo videos of dogs missing treats tossed at them.
We love to see how a thing happens.
If we can apply this innate curiosity to finding out how people are the way they are, and how they’re they’re different, why they’re different, we can alleviate a lot of misunderstanding. And, if we assume hidden systems behind everything we see, maybe we can prevent a lot of hurt.
What’s the last misunderstanding you had debunked for you? Or a time when you were able to provide perspective to someone? Tell me in the comments below.
*ShelterBox has deployed an assessment team to the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian. Please have a look here to see how we decide to respond: https://www.shelterboxusa.org/home-page/decision-to-respond-criteria/
This is part 5 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. Buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.
Colleen realized that even if everyone in the community had her family’s work ethic, they still might not be able to overcome all the headwinds they were facing. … “What if I had been born black instead of white?” she wondered. What if her grandparents had been black? Colleen asked herself.Dolly Chugh, _The Person You Mean to Be_, pp 71 & 78
… Because fewer of [Colleen’s] hypothetical black family members could access benefits, homes, places in college, and so on, she saw that there were more opportunities for her real white family. They benefited as black Americans subsidized white Americans, through both tax dollars and forgone opportunities. Regardless of her family’s socioeconomic class, they benefited from the tailwinds at their back and the headwinds slowing down others. … “In other words,” Colleen says, “I am the direct beneficiary of those racist systems.”
Last year, I wrote a blog post about the phrase “Good luck,” and why I stopped saying it to people. TL;DR: a lot of good luck is preparation, and I want to respect the work that goes into people’s endeavors.
When someone starts off on the first mile of a marathon (or a 5K!), for instance, I don’t tell them “good luck.” I tell them I hope they have all the fun they want to have. These people have worked hard to train. They don’t deserve to think it’s all down to luck.
When I was younger, I demurred a lot when folks complimented me on my success in what they saw as the fickle world of writing and publishing. “Aw,” I’d say, feeling really embarrassed, “I got lucky.”
But then, at some point, I got to believing that it was better to just own it. I had worked hard. And, it made me feel good to believe and say that I had worked hard. I was deserving, dammit.
Enter the bootstrap narrative.
But I did not have to bootstrap; not really. My parents paid for college. (But I worked at the college newspaper and in the public relations office!) We never wanted for anything at home. (But my parents threatened to withhold tuition if I didn’t study what they wanted me to study.) I could afford an apartment my first year living in New York, and I refused support from my family, even when I was eating free Goldfish crackers off bars for dinner and making $18,000 a year.
You must have noticed all the little protests I keep on throwing up there. Those aren’t there for illustration’s sake. They’re completely reflective of what goes through my head, I promise: Every single admission of how easy I had it comes with a knee-jerk response. And I’m not alone, either: Earlier in the book, Chugh refers to psychologists Taylor Phillips’ and Brian Lowery’s work, which reveals what they term the “hard-knock life” effect: respondents answering a question about their relative comfort in life answered one way or another depending on whether or not they heard about another social group’s struggles in comparison to theirs. Put more frankly, white Americans were more likely to report an easier childhood if they weren’t asked to compare their advantages to those of black Americans.
I think this is related to the idea that society is a meritocracy. I’ll sidestep into a field I’m more familiar with. Let’s look at literature, and publishing. So many writers believe that if you’re just good enough, or talented enough, the “right people” will “find you,” and then you’ll be gold. Life will be good. Cue Oprah and Terry Gross and a movie adaptation by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine production company.
C’mon. You don’t really believe that, do you? As a writer I was communicating with put it, “I realized that an executive from HarperCollins was not going to suddenly appear as I was scribbling in my notebook in a diner.” No. No she’s not. And if she does, she’s more likely to ask you for your salt shaker than she is to ask you if she can see your notebook. And then be able to pull a narrative thread from your ramblings.
Let’s take that a little further. You’re sitting in a diner? It means you can afford to eat there. You have time to write? It means you’re not working three jobs to make ends meet. You’re within vicinity of a HarperCollins editor? You’re probably hanging out in an okay part of town.
Let’s not even talk about the MFAs. I have one myself, and it netted me a gazillion connections. I currently publish a magazine and run a writers’ retreat with four friends from that same MFA. And I got one of my steadiest writing gigs via an editor I met at the MFA. And I’m sending my next novel to an agent I met there.
MFAs are expensive, man. I got in because I got decent grades at a good college and could afford to hone my craft freelancing over fifteen years or so. I graduated because I could afford an unfunded MFA at a low-residency institution. That is some rarified air, indeed.
Denying my privilege—my luck—would be silly and misguided. And blind.
I’ve covered each end of the spectrum now: I went from from not being able to admit I worked hard to prescribing my success to only hard work.
I’ve walked away from my desk seven times while writing this paragraph, so that must mean that what I want to say next is hard: I need to find a way to both recognize my hard work and acknowledge the invisible help I’ve had in getting me to this point.
- My family is well off. This means that I am more likely to take creative risks, since some part of me is aware I’ll always have someplace to turn if things really hit the skids.
- Both of my parents are college educated, which means they also expected me to get an undergraduate degree, at a minimum. Of course they would pay for it.
- My parents were able to immigrate to America with no real barriers. My father had a job already set up when he arrived, thanks to his extensive network of doctors who had graduated from the same medical school he did.
Of course I can’t deny that my ethnicity, and that presents a set of barriers.
- I was expected to marry.
- I was expected to only become either a doctor or a lawyer.
- I was expected to demure.
- I was expected to fade into the background, or I didn’t fit in.
These expectations came from my parents, certainly. But they also come from the American society I wanted to adopt as my own. The number of times I’ve had to hear “Wow, you’re opinionated for an Asian girl.” Oi.
Now that I see these things written out, I can better balance what I “came with”—what makes me lucky—with what I actually had to work for. I can see more clearly the things that might be useful for me to address when I look at how to better promote equity in my workplaces and social places.
For instance, I can represent minorities working in publishing and media and work to lift others. The publishing industry is 87% white. Minority narratives have not always been in demand, even if they are earning some share of the market now.
My parents have a strange saying that always rankles. But still, it has a tinge of truth to it: “Don’t try to help others until you’re sure you can help yourself.” They’re not wrong: I can do far less good if I’m destitute or starving. What they haven’t quite internalized, though, is that everyone has their own respective measurements of the levels at which we believe we need help. And, I’m not sure they buy the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats argument, but I do.
Last fall, when the election result that I didn’t want to happen happened, I had to sit down and have a long conversation with a white family member about the implications for people who might be impacted, including myself. I’ll never forget what she said:
“But they won’t be targeting you, Yi Shun. Asians have such good work ethics.”
To this day, recalling that conversation makes me go lightheaded. I haven’t pinned down what kind of lightheaded. I’m not angry. I’m a little hurt, still, because I have a terrible work ethic, actually, and this family member knows that. Her lumping me in with this stereotype erased my individuality. I think maybe part of the lightheadedness is a direct reaction to the realization of how far apart this family member and I are from each other in our world views: After a beat during which I saw confused blue spots, what I said to her was this:
“Whenever you see or hear the word ‘minority,’ you should think of me. Black, Latino, Asian–we are all targets. And so are the people who value us and spend time with us.”
Or maybe the lightheadedness is due to the recognition of the fact that she was right. I’m not likely to be as targeted as Black Americans, or Latino Americans, or Muslim Americans.
This, too, I have to credit to luck.