Write The Difficult Thing
I am writing the difficult thing. I might get some things wrong. I might get some people upset or mad. And it will definitely be messy. But it’s better than the alternative.
Silence is a powerful weapon.
I intend to break it. And continue to break it over and over and over. Until the truth blooms into its fullest form.
“Ay, stay out of the sun. Ayaw mong maging itim.”
That was a word you didn’t want to be associated with.
You don’t want to get black.
This is something I would hear often from my mom throughout my life. Even as an adult.
Growing up, my dad loved going to the beach. His idea of vacation was to hang out on the beach, doing nothing. “Vegetate,” he would say. He would strive to embody the very term “beach bum” by lying around on a beach towel or in one of those 70s tri-fold lounge chairs- the kind with thin plastic straps pulled across an aluminum frame. Sometimes under the umbrella, sometimes under the sun. He’d stand at the water’s edge. Or he’d walk with me and my brother to collect shells. If he wanted to get a little active, he’d bodysurf.
Yes, a beach bum. (He loved those words.)
My mom never told him to stay out of the sun.
Meanwhile, my little brother and I would run around in circle like little kids do. We’d build sandcastles and dig holes. Laughing, throwing our heads back, mouths open to the sun.
“Stay in the shade,” she told us over and over as she sat under the umbrella. Big sunglasses on her face. A wide-brimmed hat on her head.
“Magmumukha kang dumi.”
You’ll look dirty.
We didn’t care. We just kept running around. Besides, I thought, I could always take a bath later.
“You’re getting married in September. You don’t want to get too dark.”
Once again, my mom was reminding me to stay in the shade. We weren’t even at the beach. We were at a picnic in some park. She even tried to get me to carry a parasol to block out the sun. It was mid-June and I had a whole summer in front of me. “Especially with the white of the gown. You’ll look dirty.”
There it is again.
I ignored her and stayed in the sun all summer.
Last week, I watched an episode of Red Table Talk. And it was… activating.
I’ll admit: it was my first time watching it. I’ve heard many good things about it, but never got around to actually watching. Until now. I’m told that these Talks are usually activating. Well, they made good on that reputation.
The topic: Confronting the Divide Between Black and Asian Americans.
Now, just so we’re all on the same page, I want to state for the record: the past year or so has seen a very visible increase in violence against Blacks and Asian Americans.
You’d think we’d band together quite naturally. Common enemy, after all.
But consider optics versus reality.
Consider nuance versus clear-cut lines.
Consider history and who is telling it.
It’s not as simple as you’d think.
As I watched the first minutes of Red Table Talk, I could feel my frustration start to swell as Gammy expressed her feelings towards Asian Americans., tears stinging my eyes. Stereotyping. Generalized blanket statements. Presumptions about personal character. All the things that white folks do to Black folks, as Michael Eric Dyson pointed out later.
“Why should we care about them? I need to worry about my own people.”
This is how white supremacy operates.
(I highly recommend that you watch the full episode here.)
After the murders of the six Asian women in Atlanta, a friend of mine, a Black man, said that he didn’t like the #stopaapihate and #stopasianhate hashtags. When I asked why, he said he had hoped for a more proactive call, like Black Lives Matter.
“Why not Asian Lives Matter? That would make sense,” he said.
“Because we [the AAPI community] don’t want to co-opt the BLM movement. We want to respect BLM while creating our own movement and joining forces with them.” A light bulb went off in his head.
“Makes sense,” he said. “I appreciate that.”
A few weeks later, a Filipina woman was attacked in midtown Manhattan by a Black man who yelled while kicking her, “You don’t belong here!” Three members of building security looked on, not moving to help. After the attack was over, one of them walked over and closed the glass door on her prone body, lying on concrete. It was both heartbreaking and enraging at the same time. The inhumanity.
I talked to my friend about it. Then, he told me that an Asian mom had pulled her daughter out of his dance class the day before. He couldn’t help but take it personally.
“Trust me,” I said, “It’s not you as a teacher. It’s because you’re Black. It’s the conditioning of anti-Blackness in Asian communities. Not in all Asian communities and families, but in a LOT of them.”
He still couldn’t wrap his head around it. He had done everything right. He was his usual soft-spoken and silly self. Nothing was awry.
I told him again that it wasn’t him. It was the mom and her presumptions about Black men, likely based on beliefs given to her while she was a kid. The attack in Manhattan only proved her fears to be true.
Webster Hall, NYC. Summer, 1995.
Fresh out of college, a couple of friends and I roamed the floors of the great Webster Hall, a club I had been dying to go to since high school.
My immigrant parents were so strict that I was never allowed out of the house. And my dad’s wrath was so terrifying that sneaking out of the house (like my friends with immigrant parents did) was NEVER an option. I didn’t want to die that badly.
And so, I never went clubbing until I was 21. I was so deprived.
I saw that the minute I stepped through the doors.
The cavernous main dance floor greeted us with roaming spotlights as House of Pain’s anthem “Jump Around” washed over us. A swell of bodies jumping like one big wave.
Not quite the vibe we were looking for, we went deeper into the club, on the hunt for something else. What that was, we didn’t know. We only knew that we’d know when we heard it.
We climbed up some stairs, went down some other stairs. Wandered through dark hallways, people making out in the darkest corners. We opened doors to enter and exited though another. We grabbed drinks at the bars along the way.
Then we wandered down a staircase and fell into a room.
TLC’s “Creep” spilled out to greet us. That beat seeping into my bones.
Yessss! I thought to myself. This was what I was looking for.
I was blinded by white. A soft, inviting white. White everywhere. Drapes, lighting. Everyone in that room was wearing white. A pulsing collective of white fabric. I must have missed the memo.
Also: everyone in that room was black or brown.
I don’t know if I had ever seen so many beautiful faces in one room in my life. I instantly felt at home and started grooving with this one brother who came up on me all soft and sexy.
My friends stood there, shocked, frozen, completely uncomfortable. Awkward in their lily-white skin.
I didn’t care. I was having a good time.
But I could sense their low-key panic. I didn’t get it, but I could sense it. A clammy yet prickly sensation.
One of my friends leaned over and whispered, “Let’s go. I want to leave.”
I thought to myself, What? No. I’m having a good time. And this guy is cute.
Then she grabbed my hand and pulled me away. They beelined it for the door while I looked back at Mr. Cutie, shrugging I don’t know what’s happening.
Out in another dark hallway, I asked, “Why’d you do that? I was having fun.”
“We didn’t feel comfortable.”
In my head, I knew that was code for: We’re (unconsciously?) racist and we’re afraid for our safety in that room full of black people.
I was not happy. I wanted to go back to that beautiful room. I thought of ways to ditch my friends and venture back to that room on my own. But there was no way. They were still B&T girls from the suburbs who were nervous about being in the city and so made sure that we clung to each other like white (them) on rice (me). Haha!
But I longed for that room full of beautiful people dressed in white for a long time after that.
When it comes down to it, we really need to examine where our beliefs come from. How did they get there and who put them there? And are their serving our highest good?
Despite my parents’ attempts to instill anti-Blackness in me (I didn’t mention the racist jokes, but you probably knew about those already), they were not successful. Sure, I’ll admit that there were moments growing up when I thought: are my parents right about Black people? But I’d inevitably find out that they were wrong.
My friend, the Black man who teaches dance, says to me all the time, “Who you? How did you turn out to be like them (my family]?” What wonder!
For those who don’t know, Black and AAPI alliance is possible. It’s already happening. It’s the generational divide that prevents folks from seeing this. Can we put down our armor and reach across our communities with and in love? Can we examine our shared histories of oppression and come together in solidarity to fight for justice?
The answer is quite simply: YES.
This is part of the Maverick Monday series, where I talk about healing trauma (micro and macro) through the lens of a woman writer of color (that’s me!). Each week, I’ll share a personal story from my healing journey in the hopes that others will find comfort in knowing that they are not alone. I hope that by doing this, you can see that YES! healing-true, lasting, deep healing — — IS possible and that you can thrive in your life, living as your most authentic self without shrinking from the world. If you’re interested learning how to do that, check my offerings on my website, from workshops to coaching, to see what’s right for you!
Originally published at https://www.suryagian.com on May 24, 2021.