Speaking Up on Race as an Asian American
The election of Donald Trump was like an earthquake shattering our quiet, small, mountain town lives. Immigrants and people of color were targeted all over the country, as it seems like the election emboldened the nativist/racist/xenophobic elements in the nation. Folks who looked like me were being told to get out of the country and then shot at and killed in some cases, and getting eggs thrown at, their garage doors vandalized, shot at by police, and violently dragged off United Airlines planes (don’t ever fly United!). We were confused and scared - and suddenly, acutely aware that we were like the ONLY Asian family in town, amidst a sea of white folks. Every one around us is nice, but when it came to racial hatred, nobody seemed to understand how we felt (yes, we did engage in some dialog). We felt very alone. I thought about writing something, but then voices popped up. Maybe we should just assimilate. After all, we weren’t being physically harmed ourselves. We just have to brush off rude, annoying, and racist Facebook comments about dead Chinese bodies at a nearby lake and things like that. Life was busy enough with three kids and all their drama. Just do the Asian thing - stay silent and outwork everybody else. Put your head down. Go to church. Enjoy the mountains!
Yet something was bugging me about staying silent.
For one, I realized that I have a lot of privilege. I have a steady, well-paying job as a software developer at a major tech company. I am known as an expert in distributed systems and big data and have the privilege of attending, helping with, and sometimes speaking at major tech conferences. I had the privilege of attending a prestigious university and obtaining Bachelor’s and Master’s of Sciences. I am a homeowner. Those things alone put me in relatively rare spaces, the “successful” product of a system that not so long ago made it difficult or impossible to have the same degree of privilege – at least for a Chinese-American like me. I have the privilege of not having to work most weekends, or a second or third job just to get by. I have the privilege of living in a relatively safe neighborhood. I have the privilege of, for the most part, not being suspected of writing bad checks or violently stopped by police for “traffic violations” just because of the color of my skin.
I didn’t always realize how much privilege I have. Growing up, my parents taught me you are always the reason behind your own success. Keep working hard, focus on making more money, succeed in the world. There was no such thing as privilege - I deserve everything I got and everyone else did too. Two things changed my perspective completely. Coming to know Jesus Christ taught me that everything was gifted to me by God, and that the world is not about what people deserve or not – for that is God’s job, not ours – but it’s about giving others Grace, which is the complete opposite. The second thing were anthropology classes in college, which taught me that social systems and structures play a HUGE role in individual and collective outcomes – far more than just personality and work ethic.
To be truly aware of your privilege is to be aware of those who do not have a similar privilege, and to try to understand why. In the late 19th century, my Chinese ancestors came over to this golden state to help build railroads and vineyards. In fact, high above a local lake there are a set of abandoned railroad tunnels with a retaining stone wall named the “Chinese Wall” after my ancestors who built it. Folks marveled that it was so well built that it has stood for well over a hundred years. Despite their hard work, toil, and efforts to make this land their new home, whenever they would get enough of a foothold somewhere, Americans would inevitably start becoming fearful of Chinese taking over neighborhoods or jobs, and they were repeatedly driven out, taxed out (how about having 50% of your wages taken away just for being Chinese?) or starved out of neighborhoods. Chinese were stripped of most legal rights including the ability to testify… you can read about the long history here. Congress even passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to ensure that almost no Chinese would get to immigrate to the US for almost 50 years. From 1862-1965, more than a dozen states passed laws banning Asians from owning or inheriting property. The Chinese immigrants of the 19th century would have been completely shocked at the level of “success” that the Asian Americans of today seem to be achieving.
In the 1950’s, Asian Americans, African Americans and people of color were systematically denied the ability to rent or buy homes in nice neighborhoods – and we’re talking about “progressive” California. If somehow one succeeded, their neighbors would immediately sell and move out, leaving an economic and investment dearth in that neighborhood. Even just two decades ago, neighbors protested, then sold their homes and moved out when my wife’s family (also Chinese) moved into a nice California neighborhood. The effect of this system of keeping neighborhoods white, and the move to suburbs, resulted in huge economic disparities between mostly white, suburban America with hugely rising land values, and the mixed neighborhoods left behind. Going further back, Japanese-Americans, mostly citizens (and a few of which would go on to form the 442nd Battalion, in WWII, one of the most highly decorated military units), were uprooted from their homes and property during World War II.
What I’m saying is that our privilege is the result of many, many socio-economic systems built up over many, many years and ingrained in our country. These systems, including schools, housing, law and detention policy, etc. have massive effects that when put together, combine to unfortunately make our realities vastly different for different groups of people in this country. It is critical to look at how our privilege and the systems that privilege is built on, affects and especially hurts those with less privilege.
What to do with Privilege
“With privilege comes responsibility”
The recent violent marches by neo-Nazi groups with Tiki torches in Charlottesville, N.C. shattered any myth that we live in a post-racial America and posed an immediate question as to how to respond – especially in light of the privilege many of us have.
"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?"
Having privilege and staying silent seems wrong to me. Staying silent seems to mean I don’t care enough about the way the system works today to say anything. Aside from privilege, standing up against hate is something that is not liberal or conservative or white or black or brown. This is about basic decency. It is not enough to just say, but I am nice to everyone and I’m not racist. Of course - almost none of us are anything like those who marched. But this is no longer about our individualistic morality. This is about who we are as a people. It is not enough to be quietly non-racist, now is the time to be vocally anti-racist. Remember how I said how lonely it felt that there were nobody around us willing to be vocal and stand up against racist acts? There is no neutrality here. Being silent is allowing the hate to go on. To those who feel vulnerable, like myself, being silent means not caring enough to realize that we feel hurt and fearful. It’s just like school bullying. Who’s willing to stand up to the bully to tell him/her that it’s not OK? Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
"He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." --Matthew 25:45-46
Jesus does not mince words.
Those with tremendous privilege can make the most difference around us - if we recognize it and use it for the betterment of our world.
It is time to stand up, join forces, and be vocal. It is time for us to be light and overcome the darkness. Go out, do research, support minorities, refugees, immigrants, Jews, others who are under attack. For my part, I’m not going to stop writing. I’ll follow up - by the Grace of God when I can - and dive into individual vs collective and institutional racism and other issues.
I say the above to everyone - but if you are Asian American, yes you, please let this be an extra ounce of encouragement to stand up and stand out and be heard. Don’t be silent and implicitly support a broken system. Yes, it is a system that has propelled many Asian Americans to success - but many other Asian Americans have suffered too. There is a history of Asian American resistance which is not well remembered. Wong Kim Ark, an American-born Chinese, was denied re-entry to the US in the late 1800’s due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, sued, took the suit all the way to the Supreme Court and won – and thanks to him, is ensuring that Americans born of any nationality here have the right to citizenship. Yuri Kochiyama, who was interned during World War II, fought her whole life for racial justice and said, “We could all fight together and we must not forget our battle cry is that ‘They fought for us. Now we must fight for them!’”
Thus, I set out to write about this difficult topic, with a unique perspective and a focus not on shouting my beliefs, but on relation and reconciliation. Thank you for your grace, understanding, patience, and coming along for an interesting journey.
After all, all it took for Rosa Parks, in 1955, was one word.