This semester, a strange thing happened. A student came to my office hours to complain about the difficulties of understanding her own oppression.
I teach a course called “Asians in the Media” at the University of Houston, where I am a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing. The student is Asian American and has taken other courses in Asian American Studies. Her complaint was how hard it is on her to know that she is oppressed systematically by her country. She had it easier, she told me, before she knew that she was being marginalized. She expressed a wish to go back to not knowing. What could she do? She has a white boyfriend whom she wishes to marry. Why shouldn’t she be able to become a doctor or lawyer and live out a sort of ignorance-is-bliss?
I found myself very much identifying with her desire, and empathizing with her fear of the world she now knows she lives in. Sometimes knowledge is a very difficult thing to deal with. As a teacher, I admitted to her, that difficulty is something we want — we want to complicate knowledge. And yet. I could understand the very real truth that perhaps her life would be happier if she didn’t know that her country values her happiness less than certain other people’s happiness.
I have been thinking about our conversation ever since. I have been thinking about how close the student seemed to a breakdown. I have been thinking about whether it indeed screws up her life to know about white supremacy. I have been thinking about how unhelpful it is to tell students that in a decade or so, they will appreciate having learned what they learned. I have been thinking about how unhelpful it is to tell students that they will live more fulfilled lives if they understand the system under which those lives are led. I don’t know if that is even true.
I consider myself an expert in denial, as much of an expert as one can be solely from experience. I know too well that much of the ignorance my student desires to return to is closer to denial. It is denial when we can rattle off a list of times people have greeted us with “Ni hao” or asked where we are really from, and yet we claim not to “know” that the problem is systematic. Denial is not simple, and it is easier to achieve if we blame ourselves, if we do not have something larger to explain why we are under attack.
When I was in my own denial about systematic racism, I understood micro-aggressions to be well-intentioned curiosity, and I understood my anxiety and shame to be a personal inability to accept the good intentions of white people. My discomfort was mine. Admitting what I knew would make the discomfort shared, systematic, but also larger than myself and therefore uncontrollable — fixing oneself is less daunting than fixing a system.
For most of my life as a Korean adoptee with white parents and white friends, I lived with the kind of ignorance my student misses. And the fact is, I can indeed claim that I was happier then. I was happier when I believed adoption had nothing to do with supply and demand, war and colonialism. I was happier when I believed that if I dressed “properly” and spoke “properly” that I could escape being asked where I was really from. I was happier when I believed the story my parents had always told me: that anyone who works hard enough will find success. I believed the stereotypical immigrant American dream, even though that belief was married to a belief about white Americans.
I remember the doubts, of course, when people would call me Chink or monkey or tell me to go back to my country. But often the symptoms of systematic racism are so subtle that the cause is difficult to diagnose. The symptoms, for me, were losing friends seemingly for no reason. They were “positive” stereotypes. They were not getting playing time on the basketball court because I was “streaky” and my successes “came out of nowhere.” They could be interpreted as misunderstandings or flukes or minor inconveniences if only I believed they were. I was happier when I practiced magical thinking.
I took my first course in Asian American Studies as an undergrad — it was actually a literature course I have written about elsewhere. I mention that course because of how long it took me to figure out what I had learned from it. What makes awareness so hard sometimes is not the fact of waking up, but the years it takes to see that you are awake and that you can’t go back to sleep. It can take years, too, to see that waking up is as much about seeing the system as it is about seeing one’s place in it. Oppression will always seem personal.
One of the first things to get my attention in the Asian American literature course was an “article” my professor brought in. The article was simply photos of Asian men with the tagline: “Gay or Asian?” We discussed the emasculation of Asian males. Incorporating this knowledge meant acknowledging that I was rarely seen as desirable. That acknowledgement, of course, did nothing to improve my self-esteem. However, it did tie my self-esteem to being Asian. A strange kind of progress.
I only saw a single symptom. My eyes did not open immediately. I raged against my emasculation at first, a personal, limiting rage. When the lack of Asians in the media came up, I raged against that too. When we got to sugar cane plantations, Japanese internment camps, the murder of Vincent Chin, I added and added to my anger. I felt unhappy, lost, powerless. The year after, I went to Prague and hardly had a single conversation with another person of color.
Recently I was with a friend and his wife and she was talking about a Vietnamese American woman who gave her kids Anglo names. My friend’s wife said that she would make sure to give their kids “Hispanic names.” This recalled a conversation I’d had at a writing conference a few weeks earlier—a Vietnamese American writer mentioned that a white friend had said it was sad that the writer had given her kids Anglo names, as if the writer had somehow erased the kids’ culture. The white friend decided it was up to her to police the writer’s heritage. My friend’s wife asked for my opinion. I said parents should be able to name their kids whatever they choose. I could feel my friend’s discomfort. About a year earlier, I wrote an article for Salon about a class we were in together, in which a white student had wanted to police an Hispanic TV reporter’s pronunciation of his own name, the same name as my friend’s.
It is amazing how coincidental this all seems. How common these incidences are.
“This is why people in the program hate me,” I joked.
My friend said people are afraid of saying the wrong thing around me.
“Good,” I said. “I don’t want them to say the wrong thing around me.”
After he dropped me off, I thought about whether I meant what I had told him. What is the role of fear in equality? I’ve been afraid for most of my life to say the wrong thing, because I have been afraid that other people would say the wrong thing to me. I’m still consistently afraid of other people saying the wrong thing to me or about me. If I inspire fear of political incorrectness in others, then that saves me real pain. Perhaps that fear also means that the other person is aware that she might cause pain. Perhaps the resistance to policing political correctness is a desire to embrace denial. Aren’t we afraid to say the wrong thing because we indeed have a sense of what the wrong thing is and a sense that we might say it?
About a year ago, I wrote an essay essentially stating that I was getting out of the “race beat,” after another white killing of a black man. And now here I am, writing this essay partly because of protests in Baltimore and Cleveland and elsewhere.
I had to stop writing reaction pieces because the news and opinion cycle began to seem weightless and ineffective. I would write about some tragedy, people would feel shared outrage, and then that tragedy would make way for a new tragedy and new outrage. What was the point of feeding the reaction machine? What was the point when real change means change to the system, something evergreen and ever-present?
I read about Freddie Gray and Baltimore with the same feeling I had reading about Michael Brown and Ferguson: the feeling that this country is going to shit, that nothing is getting better. And we are still dealing with the effects of slavery and genocide/Manifest Destiny and internment camps and more. But do people really believe — as this viral video argues — that the country was better off when it was run by “great men?” Maybe some people want to believe. I see the anxiety now in white media over the subject of race, over how to talk about #BlackLivesMatter. That anxiety makes me wonder. In the classroom, when I mention white supremacy, a few heads nod; more turn away in fear. Maybe I see hope in that fear. Fear of people’s own complicity. Hope that people condemning “violent” protests are afraid of their own rising awareness. Some can see the truth and don’t want to. The bells are ringing. What if this country is waking up?
What is Insight? Read more about the department here.