Thoughts on race and racism from a mixed chick.

I took this photo during the weekend described in this post. At the time, I was capturing the beauty of a snowy afternoon. Looking back on it now, I see the long road ahead and the work that is still to be done on race, ethnicity, and justice in America. It may be snowy and slippery; it may not be fun to traverse. But look: the road has already been cleared for us by those who came before. We’re already standing on the path. We just have to keep marching.

My junior year of college, a friend invited me to the Posse Plus retreat, a weekend where Posse scholars invite a plus one to learn together and discuss an important campus issue: in this case, the topic “Us vs. Them.” We had a lot of conversation about what divides us over the course of the weekend, including a game where we had to find our group based on a question. We covered siblings, spirituality, and of course, the ultimate divider: ethnic group. As a proud Wasian (biracial White and Asian), I never quite fit into these demographics when the topic of race comes up, but since we were in charge of defining our groups, I quickly found another Wasian and soon had a good group going. 

Once everyone had formed a group, we went around the room and said our group’s name. When it was our turn, I stepped forward and confidently proclaimed us the biracial group–but no sooner had I said it that someone in a much larger group to my left called over and said, “Wait what? We’re the biracial group! Come on over and join us!” 

I was absolutely shocked, and completely embarrassed, to find in that moment that I expected others to appreciate my uniqueness, but had not even considered that the people in the other group might identify the same as me. I had pegged pretty much every single person in that group as Black, not biracial. 

Sure, I knew that the biracial category included many more permutations than White and Asian, but I had no idea until that moment just how much I had centered myself as the “typical” biracial person. Honestly, it’s not all that surprising either: it is my privilege as a Wasian to be recognized as biracial or blend in as White. Blasians, Afro-Latin@s, and biracial Black and White people usually don’t have that option: thanks to the one drop rule established at the founding of this country, they’re Black whether they like it or not (and don’t get me started on the fact that we have next to no positive terms to describe multiracial people). 

Over the last few weeks, my heart has broken over and over again as we have seen in glaring detail how our country is built from the ground up to dehumanize and eliminate Black lives. We saw it when Ahmaud Arbery, going out for a jog, was hunted down by two men assuming he was a thief. We saw it when Breonna Taylor was gunned down in her bed after cops broke into the wrong house. We saw it when Amy Cooper called the police, accusing Christian Cooper of threatening her life when he just asked her to put a leash on her dog. And of course we saw it when a White police officer pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck for almost 9 minutes, while 3 other officers, including one Asian, looked on and did nothing.*

Black Lives Matter, period. While it’s never been clearer than in the midst of this pandemic that every single life is precious, this simultaneous health and economic crisis has laid bare the inequalities that are built into our system. Black people have suffered more severely from the coronavirus than their White counterparts, poor communities struggle to survive in the wake of massive layoffs, and with all of this going on, police and neighborhood vigilantes still continue to murder Black people. Non-Black friends, we need to stand up for justice. We cannot let this moment pass: it’s time to call for change throughout our nation, from education to the workplace to policing. 

I love Dr. King’s remark: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” As we move forward from this moment, as we commit to fighting this fight and building change in our communities, I know that I can’t fuel my commitment to change with the outrage that I feel every time I open my Facebook app. In the last few weeks, I have so easily slipped into this outrage and anger towards the people who “just don’t get it.” But God’s response to me every single time has been the same: to seek Him and aim to be a person of peace in this ongoing conversation. Choose love over hate. Every time I start getting worked up, He has reminded me that Jesus came not for the righteous among us (who I would so love to count myself among) but for the sinners, and that though I like to ignore it, my sin is just as ugly as that of the cop who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

There’s a lot to be done in the wake of what we’ve experienced in the last month. For those who are new to this conversation, it’s time to dig deep and educate yourselves. For the Black community: thank you for doing this work that should never have been yours to take on. Let us do the work to educate ourselves and look for answers. For those who have been in this conversation for years, we’re reminded again of just how broken our country is, and how far there is to go–but I do also feel hope for change. I’ve seen these conversations and calls for an American reckoning with our past get swept under the rug for years at this point, with the same atrocities and conversations calling for change happening over and over again. Maybe this will be the tipping point that we’ve been waiting for.

So where do I go from here? 

That moment at the Posse Plus retreat, three years ago, was a moment of clarity for me. It felt as though the scales had fallen from my eyes: I had always heard, but had never truly listened. So I continued to listen throughout the rest of that weekend, and the rest of that spring, and have continued to listen to Black stories and voices in the years since. I (mostly) have stopped asking “but what about Asians?” when Black people discuss their lived experience. When I actually started listening, I began to be able to see. It’s human nature to center ourselves in the universe, and some of this work for me is to continue to set my own story aside so I have room to truly hear our Black brothers and sisters when they speak. So often I have claimed my Chinese half, my POC-ness, as a way to step out of these conversations. Part of my journey right now is to own my Whiteness and the privileges it has afforded me in my life. 

I’ve been learning (and unlearning) for a long time–my parents have been training me and my siblings in anti-racism from day one. But moments like the one on that snowy January day in Maine show me exactly how racism is built into our system, how we can’t just choose to be “colorblind” or “ignore race.” We all have our blind spots and we all participate in this society that favors light skin over dark. In our broken world, I don’t know that it’s possible to see true reconciliation this side of heaven. But I do take hope in the fact that heaven will be a place where every nation, tribe, and tongue kneels before the Father, worshiping him all together. I believe that every single one of us was made in His image, and that God looks at us, His creation, and calls it good. Until then, Jesus (who was brown, not White) calls us into relationship with him; to be more like him every day. 

Yes, we need room to discuss anti-Asian racism–we need look no further than the beginning of this pandemic to recognize that. We need space to hear Indigenous, Latin@, queer, and differently abled voices too. But there’s enough pain and suffering to go around for everyone. We are starting to fight back against centuries of systemic oppression, where this nation built into its very fabric the idea that Black people are not truly people. So for now, take the time to listen to our Black neighbors. Protest, vote, donate, read. This change begins with you and with me. These are the moments that we as White, White-passing, and Asian people are being called into. Let us repent: recognize our sin and turn away from it. Let us embrace the discomfort. I’m ready to take the next step–even though it’s often hard, wearying, and we will learn things about ourselves that we don’t particularly like. 

Will you come with me?

Nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.

-Barack Obama

*The list has kept growing since I started writing as well: Rayshard Brooks. Tony McDade. Riah Milton. Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells. Robert Fuller. Malcolm Harsch. Toyin Salau. And more.

Some Light Reading:

Books:

  • Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson
  • Beyond Colorblind, Sarah Shin
  • Be the Bridge, Latasha Morrison
  • White Fragility, Robin diAngelo
  • Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien

Articles:

Video:

Movies:

  • 13th
  • Just Mercy
  • Hidden Figures
  • Selma

Other:

Why, as an Asian American, I need to dismantle my “whiteness.”

There has been so much going on in the world, our nation and likely our own hearts and minds lately, to say the least. I understand that the overwhelming feeling that many of us are experiencing is nothing compared to the institutional violence and structural racism that our nation’s systems have imposed on Black lives – and I am glad that these issues are coming once again to the forefront of our attention – the weariness and “overwhelmed-ness” is essential in understanding the true weight, breadth and depth of the issue.

That being said, it’s necessary to continue to take care of ourselves and step away when needed from media. Spend time outside, have conversations, cook something from scratch, get some exercise – a rejuvenated and rested mind and spirit is also important in being able to best think through and address these issues.

Let me clarify “whiteness” too, because sometimes it’s hard to understand that we can be POC and still be very complicit in whiteness. Willie James Jennings, a Black theologian and scholar out of Yale who I really admire defines whiteness here as, “Whiteness is not a given, it is a choice. Whiteness is not the equal and opposite of blackness. It is a way of imagining oneself as the organizing reality of the world. It is an interpretative principle that narrates, sustains, and makes sense of the world. The fear that dogs whiteness circles around loss – a looming loss of possession, loss of control, and loss of the power to narrate the future of others. The focus of that fear has most often been nonwhite bodies.” Any one of us who has benefitted from a higher educational, economic, political, or social status from our placement within a society that discriminates against Black lives has been embedded in a structure of whiteness (which is probably everyone reading this).

I have constantly been thinking, over the past week or so, about my social location within the structural racism that persists in our nation. As an Asian American as well as an adoptee, I fully accept and admit that I have benefitted immensely from white privilege and “whiteness,” in the sense that my entire adoptive family (excluding my sister, who was also adopted from China) is Caucasian, highly educated, upper-middle class and with lots of access to resources, travel opportunities, good healthcare, etc. I went to really good public schools growing up and never had to worry about not getting enough food, not having insurance, not having my parents around because they both had to work full-time, violence in my neighborhood, or being killed or targeted because of my skin color. In addition, my status as an Asian American (unbeknownst to me as a child growing up) contributed to a sense of privilege and security – I was likely placed with many other Asian Americans in a “model minority” lens – seen by my peers or passersby as intelligent, docile, quiet and respectful, among other things. The intersectionality of my Caucasian family and my Asian features in the United States places me right in the middle of white privilege and the benefits of whiteness, whether I have liked to admit that or not as I’ve grown up.

This all being said, certainly I’ve experienced discrimination and both overt and covert microaggression for being Asian American. And it hurts. It hurt when a young girl once pulled at her eyes and made unintelligible noises when she saw me sitting behind her at a church in rural Maine. Or when people ask, “where are you REALLY from,” because “New Jersey” just doesn’t make sense to them. During my travels in Asia, as I’ve written about in previous posts, I experienced all sorts of different kinds of miscommunication and disconnect because of my features – I could not be accepted fully as Chinese OR American. In Thailand, I felt myself caught between a historical Thai-Chinese power struggle that I didn’t even realize was a thing, while also not being accepted as American. It made me question myself; “well maybe I’m not fully Chinese or American; what am I? If others don’t think I fit in anywhere, how am I to understand myself?”

However, these are slight microaggressions in the larger scheme of our nation’s and our entire globe’s deep, dark, savage history of anti-black racism and white supremacy. During this time, I have been thinking back on a cultural anthropology course, Caribbean Cultures, that I took in college. One of my favorite courses. We were challenged through reading Afro-Caribbean, Latin-Caribbean and Caribbean voices, to consider the wide-reaching effects of the slave trade, exploitation of black bodies and native bodies, rise of capitalism and supply and demand for cheap labor, in light of rising Western power and influence. We learned from authors like Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat about the dark side of tourism and trade on Caribbean lifestyle and culture and the ways in which the “white man” has taken advantage – and continues to take advantage – in our capitalist world – of black bodies. My eyes were forever opened and I was really disillusioned by the violence and embedded racism and white supremacy inherent in our capitalist economic systems, systems that we accept as “normal” and necessary to a world order that’s familiar to us. After that class, I wondered if I could ever buy bananas or sugarcane innocently again, after learning how those multinational corporations take advantage of cheap labor and have been destructive to Caribbean life and economy for generations.

But I continued about my life.

As the #blacklivesmatter movement and protests have ignited across the nation in response to recent events of police brutality, I am reminded of this global hierarchy of power and race – as well as a dark national history of white supremacy and institutionalized racism, that rears its ugly head in present times in forms like mass incarceration, segregation of cities and communities, structural denial or restriction of economic or political opportunities based on race, desensitization to Black pain, defensiveness or lack of willingness to engage, the list goes ON and ON.

After having confronted, and continuing to confront my own complicit whiteness and reflecting on what I’ve both learned and am learning about the magnitude and historical size of whiteness, I have to try and divest myself from this. It’s difficult, and maybe not fully possible. I recognize that every opportunity I’ve been granted, and will be granted in America will be tainted by structures of whiteness, and I have to learn how to resist that as much as I can – resist and recognize it. This post is going to end without answers, because I still am trying to educate myself about the size of the issue; the answers have always seemed elusive. However, I would encourage you: before you start searching for answers, understand the problem and your place within it.

If you are Caucasian, learn about your family history and your nation’s history through Black eyes and Black experience, because that is as much a part of your history as what you did learn about; it has just often been silenced or disregarded. Now is past time that you come to understand it. If you’re Latino/a, I’d encourage you to learn more about the intersectionality of your heritage and the Black experience in Latin America and the US. There are probably many more things you share than you may realize – and if you discover these things, please enlighten me because I’d love to hear more from Latino/a voices, scholars and thinkers on whiteness and Black history. If you’re of mixed race, think about the ways in which you’ve benefitted from whiteness and what you can do to learn more about the history of the issue – how can you recognize your place in the problem and divest from it in certain ways?

Asian Americans – I realize that is a broad umbrella term for lots of people of different ethnic backgrounds and histories, or that you can be of mixed race and Asian American – but some questions for you to consider – what has the “model minority” stereotype afforded you? Or has it not? What are intersectionalities between your Asian American history in the US and Black history? How can you reach outside of your comfortable circles, learn and engage more on these topics?

This is a lot, but still not enough.

I covered some things on my mind, but I’m sure more on this issue will come. My family (parents and sister) and I are starting a little bookclub this summer, and the first one we’re reading is, So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo; it might be challenging, but I’m looking forward to learning more and talking with my family about it. I also watched the documentary, 13th, by Ava DuVernay, and it was incredibly eye-opening. I’d highly encourage it to everyone. I was going to say, “to people interested in learning more about mass incarceration and the history of racism in the US – from slavery to reconstruction to Jim Crow to an era of mass incarceration and police brutality” – but I say “everyone” because if you are living in the United States, this is your history – your past, present and future as much as is the “white-centric” history that we learned about growing up. I’m feeling pretty frustrated that I only learned about one side of US history in school. I took up to AP US History in high school and I don’t believe ever learned about the dark side, the real effects, of policy like the War on Drugs. I took global history courses in college that simply did not address to an appropriate and realistic degree the realities of the global slave trade and exploitation of Black peoples.

Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox now because this is a very long post.

But please, I urge you to learn and educate yourself, as well as continue to support Black businesses in your communities, movements and organizations citywide and nationwide that are doing great work for racial justice.

As always, reach out if you have suggestions or want to talk with me more! I’d love to talk and learn more about these things from your perspective.

Peace and love, Joy