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.