Life feels physically heavy right now. The weight of a viral and racial pandemic are enough on their own, but together? Oomph. I’d like to think we’ve reached our max capacity, but I’m guessing things will get heavier before they get lighter.
Occasionally I catch myself day dreaming about running away to a cabin in the woods far away from society, or at least crawling under the covers and getting lost in Netflix Land forever. I admit I did try the latter, briefly. But going numb means going nowhere and isn’t that the crux of our systemic problem?
I recently learned that over 50 years ago Linden B. Johnson put together a committee of people known as the Kerner Commission. The committee’s job was to investigate and find solutions regarding the race riots of 1967. In the final report, Dr. Kenneth Clark, a psychologist, was quoted to say:
“I read that report…of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of…the Harlem riot of 1935, the report…of the Harlem riot of 1943, and the report of the…Watts riot.
I must again in candor say to you…it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland–– with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”
This country’s wounds are deeeep. We have been trying to fix our problems with cheap bandaids that clearly aren’t working. It’s time for a new approach then. Perhaps the only way to heal properly is from the inside out, as a nation and as individuals.
Speaking of, I have a pit in my stomach. I have written, and re-written this journal entry turned essay trying, trying, trying to be honest without being too vulnerable. By the fourth rewrite I realized the problem is that I can’t have honesty without absolute vulnerability too. In other words, if I want to share my insights on racism, then I need to share that story.
The crazy thing is, no one is making me write this. I could just as easily keep my thoughts and skeletons to myself, but I’m here in the name of progress. Progress only works if we’re engaged, and to be engaged means embracing the deep cuts that we’ve tried ignoring in the past.
We have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.
As much as I’d love to avoid that heaviness and live like a hermit in the woods, I need do my part. It would be cruel to let another 50 years go by before our systemic wounds see repair. This healing process is not going to be fun, easy, or pretty–– we can already see that from the headlines–– but racial equality is non negotiable. Are you with me?
It’s time for us to bear this weight then, no matter how uncomfortable it is.
I’ve outlined our grief in the past, but I focused mostly on our miscarriage and skimmed over the other tragedies. Instead of saying “a policeman shot our friend several times through a closed door” I probably softened the hell out of it and wrote “our beloved friend, Jon, died tragically.”
Before we go any further it’s crucial that you know that I know that what I have is a crumb. A crumb of insight…at least regarding today’s headlines. I even considered writing “crumb” after each sentence to reiterate that I’m not trying to compare my experiences to the suffering of people of color (POC).
Here’s how I know it’s a crumb–– because while my friends and I were dizzy wrapping our minds around death by a police officer, the black community was like, “yeah, that happens.” Jon was a white, 30 year old male whose struggle with bi-polar disorder led to a complicated encounter with the police. Some friends go as far to say that his mental illness killed him. I was quite close to Jon, though admittingly I don’t know all the details of his death. I do, however, know enough to disagree: his mental illness did not kill him, the police did.
It was excessive and reckless for that policeman to shoot at all, let alone through a closed door, with another person in the house to boot. Although Jon’s situation was more convoluted than I care to unpack here, the fact remains that he was unarmed. And like so many others who were killed this way, the thing I keep coming back to is that he. didn’t. have. to. die.
He passed 3 years ago, but Clay and I talk about him almost daily. We miss him. The impact of his death changed the trajectory of our lives. It has also motivated me to learn more about police unions, other cases of excessive force, qualified immunity, Clinton’s COPS initiative, consent decrees and other eye-opening policies and protocol that are worth briefing ourselves on…especially now. I’m no expert, though. I also don’t want to give off the impression that I’ve toiled away digging through dense research, I haven’t. But I have read enough to formulate this very educated opinion–– our criminal justice system is out of whack.
As much as I disagree with the A in the “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bad, B*tards) statement, losing a friend this “tragically” has also given me a personal crumb of insight regarding the emotions of the recent riots. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I definitely know the feeling–– I’ve wanted to set fire to a police car too.
There are gigantic differences between being Black, and an Asian-American Korean who was adopted by white Dutch people as an infant. I repeat: gigantic. However, even as a whiteish Asian whose life is is based on extreme privilege, I can personally testify that systemic racism abounds.
I’ve answered “no where are you really from” hundreds of times. I’ve been hatefully addressed as “you people,” …Mulan too, of course, but I’ve also been called Pocahontas, and Jasmine; I guess because they aren’t white either. Honestly I’m not confident that certain people in my inner inner inner circle are able to identify that I’m Korean, not Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, etc.
My grandma often helped out at bath time when I was younger. She’d take the washcloth and scrub my neck and knees so hard that it hurt. If I said “ow”, she’d become agitated and say “Well, you have dirty skin.” As a kid, I remember thinking “I can’t help it. That’s the way my skin is…”
I loved my grandma deeply. She was not intentionally putting me down and she has since passed away, but in her defense the pigment and texture of my skin is different, especially when it’s tan, and especially considering the contrast between myself and my childhood bathtub buddy, aka my fair-skinned sister. Furthermore, it was quite a revelation when I found out about a ubiquitous Korean washcloth, oddly called an Italy towel, which is used specifically to exfoliate our unique skin. I also learned about South Korean bathhouses, where they pay to have someone scrub their skin the way my grandma did–– who knew.
But comments like that leave a mark on a kid. As a sensitive 4 or 5 year old I was clueless about Italy towels and Korean bathhouses, I just felt bad about myself. I felt inferior. What is wrong with me? Why does my skin have to be this way? My grandma’s remark was just one example, but plenty of people have said worse things.
Who ever said “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” is full of garbage. As I got older I dealt with thousands of normal adolescent insecurities–– pimples, braces, awkward fitting clothes–– but because of things people said, and because being American is so synonymous with being white, I was also insecure of my most basic features: my Asian hair, my Asian skin, and my “squinty” eyes.
I grew up wishing I was white like my family, like my classmates. Life would be easier, and people would love me more if I were white.
Within my family, I know that isn’t true. However, outside of them, there are too many people and situations that continually reinforce the notion that it is. The fact that I have these thoughts says a lot about how steeped in racism we really are. That I would be racist, in a sense, of my own heritage. That although I’m already a white-ish Asian (i.e. not Black), life would still be easier (better) if I were just…white.
I would love to end on that last section–– as a victim, with a crumb and a soap box, shaking my finger at all of you for perpetuating systemic racism. It would be much easier to say shame on you, but since this essay is part of my own 12 step recovery of sorts, I’m here to say shame on me.
[Kicks soap box to the curb.] Now that that’s out of the way, I guess I should tell you about what happened in Portland:
A few years ago (aka pretty recently) my husband and I took a trip to Portland, Oregon. At the time, we lived in a smallish city in West Michigan, where the population floats around 200,000. Portland is about two times as big as that, which you’ll soon find out is not important to the story at all. This minor contrast between my small city and the bigger city is, however, something my ego desperately wants you to know.
Now, I’m reluctant about sharing this story but I do solemnly swear that I will write the whole truth, the brutal truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. However I did not get permission from my insecure ego to do any of this, which is why she’s trying to defend herself. No matter what, don’t be distracted. She’s not important right now. Ignore her.
We had never been to Portland before. We were exploring the city on foot by ourselves that night. We had walked over the Burnside bridge to visit the famous Powell’s Bookstore. After that we decided to go to a nearby bar for drinks. The only problem was, we were a tiny bit lost. It’s not too hard to picture–– two confused 30ish year old tourists, trying to make sense of google map directions, in the dark, on an unfamiliar downtown sidewalk.
My ego would have you know that I was already vigilant of our surroundings at this point. Traveling 101 has taught me how important it is to play it cool and not to call attention to the fact that you are an easy target, aka a clueless tourist. Despite this wisdom, we were not doing a good job hiding the fact that we were lost, so I was on edge. But again, ignore my ego, because none of that matters. I promise.
As we resumed walking and headed back the way we came from, a man in his 40’s emerged on the sidewalk several paces behind us. He was Black.
The three of us walked that way, in tandem, for two or three minutes. My heart was saying don’t you dare, but my brain immediately went to worse case scenario. Without thinking I awkwardly skipped up the steps to the fully lit entrance of Powell’s books to “get out of harms way” and let him pass.
“What are you doing?” Clay judged (and rightfully so).
My heart sank immediately. My actions were painfully clear. Clay knew, I knew, and I’m 100% certain that harmless Black man knew exactly why I leapt aside. I had no reason to feel threatened. Nothing was indicating that I was unsafe, but it was dark out and he was Black, and I let ugly, ignorant, and hateful generalizations cloud my judgement.
As I wrote an early draft of this story I had tears in my eyes. It is awkward, shameful, and flat out vile to come to terms with my own racist capabilities.
My ego still wants to justify my actions. You were in a ‘big city’, you would have felt unsafe if anyone was walking that closely behind you. But would I? If that man looked like my white father-in-law, or my white uncle, I don’t think I would have. You see? The population of Portland does not take away from the fact that in that moment, I chose to be racist.
I would like to think that this will never happen again. But this is honesty hour, right? I’ll certainly try to check my behavior in the future, but I’m also bound to make mistakes. We can be racist, and we can be antiracist on the same day.
I think about that Portland man often. I’m caught in an ongoing loop of shaming myself, then forgiving myself, then shaming, then forgiving. I wish, more than anything, I could have a do-over. Or at least apologize to his face.
But I think this is the next best thing–– coming clean, learning from my failures, and moving forward.
I am still not 100% sure why I’ve chosen to share this publicly, except I feel like we aren’t taking this seriously enough.
Teeny tiny crumbs like mine are still shocking us (myself included) and they shouldn’t. The time for being shocked is over. We need to stop underestimating how deep the racist roots are in ourselves, and in this country. This is not a conspiracy or a hoax or about political gains. Our country is racist, democrats and republicans alike. The criminal justice system is broken, both parties are to blame. What’s especially troubling is that these two truths–– systemic racism and police misconduct–– are painfully intertwined, and our fellow Americans are suffering because of it.
Dear audience, I know you. We are a privileged people. Police brutality and racial injustice likely are not hurdles you have to endure in your day to day. Subsequently, it’s easy to distance yourself from these issues.
Please be vigilant. Embrace the discomfort. Stay engaged. Keep your ears, eyes, and hearts soft & open. Refuse to become calloused. Admit when you are wrong. And most importantly, act.
Saying, “it’s horrible what they did to George Floyd,” doesn’t get us off the hook. Having a broken heart is not enough anymore. I repeat: it is not enough. Actions speak louder than…being nice to Black people, or being sad for their incessant oppression…or however that old adage goes.
Instead, what matters is our answer to this question:
How are we actively being antiracist?
If we can show up and fight with unprecedented endurance now, perhaps the phrase police brutality will become an oxymoron. If we bear this weight now perhaps we can raise a generation that doesn’t have to work so hard to see that their racial differences are loved and beautiful and EQUAL, too.
Black lives matter. It’s time we act like it.