Back in December, I mused that in 2021 I wanted to lean in to the work I need to do personally, in the areas of equality, climate, and compassion. The recent attention paid to anti-Asian violence has certainly gotten me working.

I knew that conversations about race would require patience, self-examination, humility, and the courage to have uncomfortable and open-ended conversations. I anticipated that it would require extra attention and consideration to know when to listen and when to speak up, especially in the workplace.

The past few weeks have caused me to deconstruct my own assumptions, awaken to the pain of myself and others, and revisit what it means for BIPOC communities to be allies.

Deconstructing old scripts

I am in my mid-fifties, and my formation as an American happened in an era where most Chinese-Americans unquestioningly internalized the narrative of white supremacy that infuses our capitalist democracy. I was born and raised in the USA to highly educated immigrants from a pre-communist China. My parents immigrated in the aftermath of the Chinese exclusion act, with a wave of Chinese students from privileged backgrounds. Their attitude toward civil rights was that it was a problem for “American” minorities, and they believed that immigrants would benefit from the promise of capitalism and democracy by keeping their heads down and succeeding in the system.

But my parents did not know that “the system” would ultimately always treat us as “other.” I discovered old memos from my father’s 40 years at IBM that demonstrate his utter bewilderment at what we now know as the glass ceiling and micro-aggressions he experienced there. He often said “we’ll succeed, even if it means we have to be three times as good as the Americans.” Today’s generation of Asian Americans find it absurd that we used to accept this kind of inequality.

Having escaped horrific wartime trauma, my parents shut off major emotional conduits that would have helped them live more expansively, more aware. They just didn’t have energy to fight. Even when the Vincent Chin story hit, my parents’ response was to accommodate: to numb the emotion, draw the circle in tighter, and say “It’s too bad Americans (white people) don’t know the difference between Chinese and Japanese.” A man who looked like them was brutally killed in a racist attack, the killers were condoned, and my parents just contorted and distorted themselves in an effort to absorb the pain of this.

My brain is wired that way too. Ten years before Vincent Chin’s murder, a bully shoved my little first-grade self onto the sidewalk and ran over me with his bike. This same bully used to throw rocks at my head at recess whenever he got a chance. No grown-ups in my mostly white suburban school intervened, beyond keeping antibiotics and bandages handy for us. They lumped me, another Chinese boy, one Korean family that had recently immigrated, and a Japanese family that had been in the U.S. for generations and whose grandparents had been incarcerated in internment camps, into the same unfortunate bucket. We finally got a Japanese American principal later who I thought was especially nice, but who I now realize was actively watching out for us Asian kids at recess. After the bike incident, I ran home with my heart pounding and arms bleeding, but what I processed with my mother was that Paul S had called me a “Jap” even though I was Chinese. I felt I had no choice but to accept the racism, so I narrowly channeled my anger and hurt into the fact that my oppressor didn’t get his epithets straight.

Many of us were trained to stay in our lanes and take care of ourselves, instead of addressing the real problem of inequality. I am learning to reckon with how I’m wired, as a new generation of POC gives me words, concepts and categories I didn’t have before.

Still, I am jaded.

Igniting emotions

At first, when the API community all around me was expressing outrage and hurt over the recent publicized attacks on elderly Asians, my lizard-brain could not cope. This kind of thing has been happening all my life, and I had become dismissive of people who were just finally discovering it. Vincent Chin was our George Floyd moment, and no one did anything to change things. Numbness, resignation, and accommodation have distorted me, too.

Then, I had an unexpected invitation to sit up and participate. A coworker reached out to me on Slack. He is white, male, and from a Southern U.S. state; frankly, if I didn’t know him so well I would have a lot of assumptions about a person with those markers. He reached out to say that he had been reading and hearing all the comments from our colleagues about the lack of response our company leadership showed to all the reports of anti-API violence, and he wanted to extend his support to me if I was hurting and offer a listening ear if I ever wanted to talk. He didn’t go into white savior mode, he just acknowledged his own sense of loss and graciously extended an offer to feel this pain together.

Well, confound me. I was undone. My jade cracked. My matrix had a divergence.

My coworker had disarmed my wariness and re-ignited compassion in me. In the days that followed, a half dozen other non-Asian colleagues reached out to me in the same way. I thought, if the world had changed when I wasn’t looking, and these people, even white people, cared about my community, then certainly I could muster care and curiosity too. So I started paying attention again, engaging with this current moment, respecting the fresh outrage of a new generation of Asians and Asian Americans. I saw examples of non-Asian people creating space and time to listen and to give voice to those who lamented. I found that I still had the capacity to feel grief, anger, and indignation. I also had the added depth of endurance and perseverance. I could reframe this whole situation, and count those dormant years as an exercise in patience, saving energy for such a time as this.

I hope that this time we have the emotional health to move forward with justice.

Re-imagining alliances

My parents had completely swallowed the Model Minority narrative. In doing so, they also accepted another lie of white supremacy: that access to rights or privilege is a zero-sum game. It’s a wickedly shrewd strategy, pitting all non-whites against each other for a coveted seat at the white table. We have to stop feeding that lie.

Our struggle is not against each other. It’s against white supremacy. Our work is to dismantle a system based on an unjust concentration of power. Every one of us has a responsibility to take on this work.

Both at work and in my church denomination I have witnessed discourse that shows we have a hard time talking about anti-Asian violence without feeling like we are taking away from other “Others” issues. This is further reinforcing the constraint that white supremacy constructed. Focusing only on our own “race” or “religion” or “ethnicity” keeps us in fragmented communities defined by whites against the standard of whiteness, in a false narrative of competition. What modern biological and physical sciences are showing us is that nature is explained better with a framework of cooperation, not competition. (See Janine Benyus‘s beautiful essay in the book All We Can Save.) We do this work for each other, and for all of us.

Being specific still matters, though. Shining a light on attacks – on an elderly Thai man, a Burmese woman, a Chinese dad, and many more – forces us to acknowledge the reality of anti-Asian racism and to retrain our brains to see and to believe there is an egregious wrong to be righted. We could go all the way back to Vincent Chin or the 1871 Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles when 500 White and Hispanic men mobbed Chinatown and robbed and brutalized the entire community and lynched 18 Chinese men. We need to acknowledge.

This does not take away from our brothers and sisters who have their own stories to tell. It is hard work to enlarge our hearts to be able to hold everything at once – Black Lives Matter, anti-immigration harassment of LatinX and Muslim communities, the disproportionate impact of COVID on First Nation communities, the underrepresentation of women in boardrooms. But rather than overwhelming us, all these specific stories should focus all of us on the real enemy – a system that creates insularity and dissension among many so that a few can enjoy comfort and prosperity.

We must increase our capacity to grieve for each other if we are to move forward on taking care of each other.

I have heard from African Americans who don’t trust the Asian community to have their back, and I have heard from Asians who resent being dismissed by the Black community. The Model Minority myth is toxic for us both. It was created by white supremacy to give non-whites the illusion that opportunity is available to anyone who assimilates. Model minorities don’t have slavery, Jim Crow and systemic racism continually suppressing their ability to flourish. Model minorities are allowed to get to a certain level that white supremacy can tolerate, which makes them a good scapegoat for other Others. Yet model minorities will never be considered to be in the “white” club, no matter how high the test scores or objective achievements. (The story of Chinese Americans in the Mississippi Delta is a great example of this dynamic.) If model minorities get too close to the table, they will be savagely beaten back – as we have seen.

White supremacy deliberately creates a binary, biracial society: White, or Black – everyone must choose to align to one of these, and only one choice gives access to power and privilege. The conflict this creates only serves to distract us all from what we need to do to dismantle racism and Othering of all forms. We can’t even see each other because we are all oriented around white privilege. But, move white supremacy out of the center, and we can see each other again, see what needs mending, expand the circle.

We all have responsibility to take care of each other. That could look like reparations for descendants of slaves and indigenous peoples as well as for interned Japanese, or giving sustainable local land use governance back to Hawaiian or Appalachian communities, or stopping police brutality directed at anyone black or brown. There’s plenty of rebuilding and reimagining work to be shared all around, and we will be stronger and more able if we work together.

And finally, delighting in progress

I talked about the bright spots at my workplace. Sometimes others take better care of me than I do. My non-BIPOC bosses heard me express some struggles in a meeting and gave me explicit permission to skip the next meeting to restore my mental health after a hard conversation about micro-aggressions. I’ve seen executives stumble and then, humbly and in real-time, check their own white privilege on Zoom meetings, demonstrating vulnerable servant leadership.

Also, there are good Karens! I’ve been encouraged by the willingness of white women who are not “Karens” to work alongside me, at the workplace and in all arenas of my life. Special thanks to Dr. Karen Andrews for friendship and wise coaching as I put my thoughts together for this piece.

I leave you with a poem that Karen shared with me. May it help you take heart.

Be kind. Be light.

What I Have Learned So Far

Mary Oliver

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.