getting to the other side 

A year ago, I channeled rage and grief into a blog post called “discussing white supremacy at the dinner table,” which is basically a bunch of links to articles breaking down white privilege, anti-Black racism, and tactics for navigating conversations about race and how to get by some common derailing tactics.

Writing that post and trying to put it into action over the past year has been part of a constant process of unlearning and relearning. As a non-Black person raised in a country founded on white supremacy, I know I have so much more unpacking and unlearning to do. I say this as someone who for decades wanted to run for office, as someone who believed in American exceptionalism and meritocracy and equality of opportunity, as someone who has benefitted from the model minority myth (to the extent that East Asians are most privileged from the ways our diasporas are consolidated into one monolith) and by extension, from my complicity in anti-Blackness.

My identities as a queer and genderqueer non-Black person of color and child of immigrants don’t exempt me from my class privilege or relative race privilege or from benefitting from anti-Blackness.

Saturday Night Live recently created a digital short called “A Thanksgiving Miracle” that is being hailed as a perfect solution to racist and/or otherwise problematic dinner conversation — play Adele’s “Hello,” and magically shut down the conversation as everyone starts singing. (Full disclosure, I think this song is very overrated and kind of boring, sorry.)

 

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 5.10.27 PM

(This is a screencap, not an embedded video. Image shows a group of mostly white people sitting around a table full of Thanksgiving food. A white woman seated next to a young white child points an accusing finger at a Black man, the only person of color present.)

(This article recaps the video.) On the surface, I get why this is supposed to be funny. It worked well when they did a similar sketch with everyone crying to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” but as a card-carrying SJW I am duty-bound to tell you your fave is problematic. Even setting aside my many other critiques about this skit for a moment,* this video annoys me because a bunch of cisgender white people ignoring oppressive statements with karaoke does nothing to fix anything.

Ok, so maybe Thanksgiving dinner is not the time when you’re going to your racist Aunt Sally/Zhang Ahyi. And often, Thanksgiving is already a traumatic experience. As I said last year, Thanksgiving is a hard time for a lot of reasons — how do indigenous folks commemorate a holiday that literally celebrates the attempted genocide of their people? For queer and trans folks who have been cut off from their families, what table do we sit down around? For folks who don’t have access to class privilege or the ability to support themselves financially or other systems of support, being cut off from family is dangerous and violent.

That may be the case for you, and I am not here to make judgment statements on what your activism should look like or how you approach social justice, but my point is that letting these comments go unchecked is a choice, and when you are not a member of the oppressed group being targeted, being able to turn away from these conversations is a privilege.

It’s hard enough to go into these dinners, but it helps to think through these conversations ahead of time. Some guiding questions:

  • What are my stakes in this conversation? What comments am I not going to let go by unchecked?
  • What are the consequences of letting those comments slide? (Are there youth present who will hear and internalize these comments, without seeing anyone offer a counter narrative? Will you regret not having said anything to defend your friends, loved ones, chosen family, whether or not they were present?)
  • What topics are likely to come up, and is it possible to plant a seed of noting your discomfort, so that you can have a follow-up conversation later?

And let’s face it. Fighting for our liberation is not just about saying the right things — reductionist critiques of political correctness focus on this idea that SJWs are saying some words are bad and can never be used. It’s not just the words — finding different words to say the same harmful things and uphold the same systems of oppression is nothing new. (See, for example, the use of “thug.”)

This work is about changing people’s perspectives and shifting things for long-term change. For folks who are giving themselves an ally label, do the work at home. We can’t just dismiss people because they’re old or they’ve always been that way; things “always being that way” is what has brought us to the present day.

hello from the other siiiiide

I must have tried a thousand times
to tell you that’s racist, everything that you’ve said
but when I comment you never seem to take accountability for your facebook posts

Think about what it means to turn away. We are not on the other side of this. As Shaun King laid out, “more unarmed Black folk have been killed by police THIS YEAR than were lynched in any year since 1923.” Armed white supremacists in bulletproof vests fired upon peaceful protestors in Minneapolis, and then walked away from a crowd full of police. The KKK has been openly recruiting in Portland and surrounding cities, where police also put up a billboard saying “Having enough police matters,” directly across from a church that has been displaying a #BlackLivesMatter banner. Shooting an unarmed Black person doesn’t lead to jail time, but protesting these murders by police does. Police have literally been targetting and arresting Black organizers who are leading protests and direct actions. 

Across the country (and in other nations), Black organizers are drawing attention to the open war on Black folks in this country.

Having “a conversation about race” is not enough, by far. But right now, we as non-Black folks, need to take on the labor of these conversations in our own communities, with our own families.

* Specifically, this is a perfect example of casual racism and transphobia, in that “progressive” cisgender (mostly) white folks get to make racist and transphobic statements (which the video also reifies by drawing on drag tropes which are often if not always transmisogynistic) for laughs. See where the laughs come in, and see also Dave Chappelle’s comments on taking a break from “Chappelle Show” after hearing a white person’s laughter at “the wrong moment.” (I have many thoughts about comedy and the limits of its usefulness.)

blog inertia + random list of thoughts

I have three different drafts of blog posts about different things, many of them heavy, and because I haven’t written a blog post for so long, I feel the need to write about everything, and to do it well, and instead I have spent large chunks of the last few days scowling and/or frowning at my laptop with WordPress open. So instead of a full blog post, here is a random list of thoughts:

  • I talked to my parents about Vincent Chin for the first time today, and until then I never realized they’d never brought him up before. I asked my dad if he was scared at the time, and he replied simply, “There were just some places we knew not to go.” He mentioned being on a business trip with a black co-worker in the South a while back, and he remembers that co-worker telling him how nervous he got when he got lost on the way to a presentation. “You just couldn’t be sure, so you knew not to go some places.”
  • We talked a lot about happiness and what that looks like, and values and work ethic and what it meant to grow up in the community we did. I asked my mother what lessons she hoped she imparted on her children, and she started to answer, then asked, “Isn’t this kind of cheating? Shouldn’t you know?” In a way, it does feel like cheating, as a writer — why bother with metaphors and signs and allegories and trying to figure out the subtext, I’ll just ask her.
  • The Poets for Ferguson cypher was amazing, and powerful, and so heavy. I talked to my friend Ami about it today, and we are both working our way through the hours we didn’t see live. I feel an absence, almost, now that it has wrapped up, and I realize how much I crave space that is centered on and exclusively for people of color.
  • I am grateful to have a friend I can Skype with for three hours about everything we are thinking and fears and feeling stuck and not being sure what lessons our parents wanted to teach us and what we should be doing next.
  • I am thinking a lot about inertia in general, and about living up to one of the poems I performed — one of its conclusions is that the road to progress is long, but that it’s important to keep moving. So often over this past month and a half (and in other stretches before), I have wondered how we are supposed to keep moving forward, and whether we will be able to. And I keep reminding myself to balance the need for self-care against the knowledge that my ability to turn away — and the instinct to do so — both of these are rooted in privilege.
  • Today was my mother’s birthday. Her 33-year-anniversary with my father is coming up soon. They went to get Thai food to celebrate. This morning on the phone, my mother misheard me say I would call her back and thought I’d said I’d be at the house at noon. “My heart jumped for a second,” she told me in disappointment.
  • I have been sitting on a post about “The Giving Tree” and motherhood, and I wanted to talk to my mom about it first. She said she doesn’t find it sad, just accurate. I texted my brother about it later, as he got ready to head to the Thai restaurant to surprise my mother.
    (does the boy come back? / As an old man he returns and sits on her stump / oh, happy book then!)
  • What is a sad story about motherhood, then? Is it a tree that keeps waiting, having given away all of its fruit to show how deeply and unconditionally she loves? Will she continue to wait, forever, unable to move past the spot of her last and most painful sacrifice? How can we ever begin to heal the wounds of boys who never return and trees who will always be kept waiting?

T+N: Books and circles

T+N (Then+Now) posts will be past posts from other social media, paragraphs lifted from e-mails, or transcribed print journal entries + metadata with as much context as I can conjure up for the original post + new thoughts + ideally, comment aggregation.

I’m in the process of packing up my apartment, or perhaps more accurately, I’m rediscovering my blog as a way to procrastinate, instead of packing up my apartment. I’ve only been able to bring myself to pack up one of my bookshelves — the one in the living room* — and haven’t touched the three in my room. I’m pretty sure that once I do that, my room will no longer feel like a living space.

This (23 months) is the longest I’ve lived in any place since leaving home for college, and I think it’s become pretty apparent that my nesting instinct involves surrounding myself in the comforts of poetry and prose. I prefer buying books used, but if I read a book and have any kind of emotional reaction to it, it becomes really important for me to hold on to that specific copy, which probably explains why there are now more than four bookcases worth of books for me to pack up and transport to my new home.**

I originally posted this note, “Books and circles” on Facebook, on July 7, 2010, after visiting my mom’s cousin. I was in Taiwan for just under three weeks, in between my two AmeriCorps terms:

When I was eight, I read the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time. I have this vivid memory of being sprawled on a living room floor in Taiwan in what I thought was a family friend’s house, completely caught up in the story, then trying to finish the entire series before I left the country. I remember getting to the part about Aslan and the stone table in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and figuring out it was an allegory, and that was the moment where I realized authors are badass because they can, like, do things with books and words and metaphors, and readers are all, “Hey, I was just reading this story about animals, but it’s actually not even about animals.

Today, I went with my mom to see her cousin, whom she thought I hadn’t met and whom I didn’t recognize. The first thing she said was that she remembers the first time we met, when I was lying on the floor reading while all the other kids were playing. (Me: “Yeah, that sounds like me.”)

I asked if I had been reading the Chronicles of Narnia, but she didn’t recognize the titles or author until my mom repronounced “C.S. Lewis” in a Chinese accent, and then my mom’s cousin walked into a bedroom and came back and presented me with the boxed set that I’d read 16 years ago. Later in the conversation, my mom mentioned that people call her cousin Zhang 老師 (teacher), and that name fit into the memory and explains why I thought I was with non-family.

Now everything makes sense, and the universe feels oddly tidy.

Also, my aunt (Chinese people don’t bother with numbering and removing cousins, thank you very much) is an amazing woman who’s dedicated her life to helping other people, and it was lovely to meet her for the first time again.

P.S. Anne Fadiman’s essay “Marrying Libraries” in Ex Libris: Confessions of A Common Reader, about how she and her husband joined their collections, is a great piece about many book-related things, including how individual books become imbued with the memories of the times you read them.

[Actually, I think I’m attributing something Mark Z. Danielewski said at the Festival of Books to Fadiman, but when he said what he said, it reminded me of her essay, and I don’t have that book or a transcript with me to check exactly what words either used. (Embarrassing admission: I checked Amazon to read part of the essay and googled my #latfob livetweeting, but the essay cuts off on the preview, and I didn’t tweet what MZD said.)]

This note was supposed to be shorter than it’s becoming. I could easily tack on something about meeting my mom’s other cousin’s husband in England, who owns a used bookshop, and knowing he was family even though he was technically an elderly English gentleman I’d never seen before and hadn’t heard of until a few weeks earlier. Or about talking to him about C.S. Lewis, too. Or about how I came down to breakfast a few days later and a first-edition Great Expectations was just sitting there, next to a plate of scrambled eggs. Or about Ex Libris or about reading as a kid and having to be “woken up” from books, which Fadiman talks about in the preface. But I have a boxed set to go browse.

Summary: Books are important.

-30- Facebook note

Update: I just reread this note and was amused that I mentioned using the Internet to figure out whether I was referring to the right texts. I think that impulse is heavily influenced from years of copy editing and fact-checking, which in turn was both influenced by and magnified by an unhealthy need to be right. I’m working on it, I swear.

My mom’s cousin passed away a few months later. She was battling cancer when we went to visit and was a little low energy, but she was still making sure that they people she helped were taken care of. Along with all of the people she helped through her church, she had a huge influence on my closest two cousins when they lived in Taiwan for a year as kids. After we talked about The Chronicles of Narnia, she asked about what I do, and it was the first time I had a conversation about my job with a member of my family and felt like they got it. My mom was there, of course, and I think she finally got a clearer picture of why I had decided to enlist in a second City Year. My parents have always been supportive and always tell me they just want me to be happy, but from my aunt, it felt like she was actually giving me her blessing to continue working with students.***

I now have my own copy of Ex Libris, a serendipitous stick-everything-in-a-box book sale acquisition. I was thinking about the essay “Marrying Libraries” the other day when one of my new roommates talked about filling our new living room with bookshelves so that we can read each other’s favorites and merge our book collections. I had a really awkward moment of intense discomfort, followed by a “we’re not there yet” conversation. This is one of my best friends, one of the first people I came out to, one of the only people I’ve ever let touch me with bare feet (this is really just illuminating more of my neuroses than helping me to make my point). As I said above, I prefer buying used books, and I’m a huge advocate for borrowing and lending books  — but I’m not ready to intercalate anyone’s books with mine yet. And, in a hugely nerdy way, I realized that “Marrying Libraries” has become my benchmark for choosing someone I want to spend my life with. When I’m ready to call my books ours, that’s when I’ll know.

* Living room bookcase consisted of theory books, memoirs, anthologies and assorted books I bought and haven’t gotten to sorting yet. It was also supplemented by two file boxes with more books, courtesy of a few dangerous stick-everything-in-a-box-and-pay book sales at The Last Bookstore’s warehouse and the UCLA English department’s reading room. These were also, one might say, books that haven’t entered into the circle of trust and are therefore allowed to be out in the open.

** There’s a huge backyard and space for people to come over and sit and there are citrus trees in the backyard and there’s lavender in the front yard and a kitchen nook with adorable carved benches! Dinner parties! Sangria in mason jars in the backyard! Urban gardening! Herb-infused everything! I am very excited! Can you tell!?

*** My mom called and retroactively gave me her blessing a few months ago and told me she was proud of the work I’ve done. I think the turning point was watching the Heroes graduation video I cut together; you can’t see the Heroes and not understand how important youth development work is. They are one of the most inspiring groups of people I have ever had the privilege to spend time with.